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'Sankofa' director back with film of Ethiopian battle

By Mary Gabriel

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 (Reuters) - With the 1994 picture ``Sankofa,'' Ethiopian director Haile Gerima became something of a legend in the independent film world.

His haunting story of an African American woman's time travel back to the days of slave trading was rejected by Hollywood, which said it did not know how to market it. But Gerima did. He simply let the movie speak for itself.

He and his wife, Shirikiana Aina, rented a theatre in Washington to screen the film and raise some money. Word of mouth about the powerful picture was so great that it remained at that location for 11 weeks, then travelled to 32 other U.S. cities, was shown in London for more than four months and was screened throughout Europe and Africa.

By independent film standards ``Sankofa,'' which cost about $1 million to make, was a blockbuster. Now Gerima is back, hoping his latest picture, ``Adwa: An African Victory,'' will speak as loudly and to as many audiences.

``Adwa'' debuted in the United States on Nov. 20 at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington. Using oral history, song, poetry -- in the Amharic language with subtitles -- and period prints to enhance footage shot in Ethiopia, Gerima creates a mellifluous chant recounting an 1896 Ethiopian victory over Italian troops that inspired the Pan-African and nationalist movements, and later the American civil rights movement.

His method is not unlike that of an Ethiopian warrior who, returning from battle, sings the report of his fight to the emperor. ``He can't talk about his deeds per se. He raps it,'' Gerima said of the warrior tradition. ``In a poetic form all his own, he composed his deeds and chanted that in front of a king when the war was finally over.''


In ``Sankofa,'' an Akan word that means ``we must go back and reclaim the past so we can move forward,'' Gerima showed audiences the horror of the slave past. In ``Adwa'' he describes a distant triumph when an African nation, largely armed with spears and knives, defeated a well-equipped and organised Italian military bent on colonisation.

The ``Adwa'' story is one Gerima, born in Gondor, Ethiopia, in 1946, learned from his father.

``I didn't pay attention to it much, I was too busy studying European and American history, and Adwa got banished into the back of my reality,'' said Gerima, who studied at the University of California at Los Angeles and is now a professor of film at Howard University in Washington.

But in 1996, on its 100th anniversary, Gerima decided to make a movie about the battle, which he remembered, ironically, after reading about it in writings by African Americans.

With the help of a grant from German television and money from his own Negodgwad Productions and Mypheduh Films distribution company, he went to Ethiopia to find the elders who could tell him the story that lived in their memory but had been lost to the history books.

``I call it 'Sankofating' back to 'Adwa.' I'm utilizing that means of expression in my own field of cinema by bringing about things that I have lost or bringing about things that are on the back of the shelf,'' he said.


The battle of Adwa began on March 1, 1896, with more than 50,000 Ethiopian men and women on donkeys and mules facing nearly 20,000 well-armed Italian troops on horseback.

One press account at the time said that by nightfall the Italian army ``no longer existed.'' News of the outcome of the battle at Adwa was transmitted worldwide. There were other resistance movements in Africa but no victory on the continent before Adwa had culminated in independence.

``It was a major disaster for people who felt that Europeans were civilised and that they would triumph all over the world,'' Gerima said, adding that after a brief flurry of press reports news of the battle was suppressed.

``They didn't want most of the colonies to really know this information and it got lost in the process.''

Gerima set out to find it. Not in the history books, which, when they mentioned Adwa at all, gave a European interpretation of the story. And not on historic maps, which had been drawn by Italians. Gerima went to the towns and villages, along the route from Addis Ababa to Adwa that Ethiopian Emperor Menelik took before the battle, to speak with anyone who remembered.

``Anybody could do the film,'' he said. ``I felt I should do it how it was remembered, from the song to the chant to the literal remembrance. What I felt for Adwa, to make the mountains and roads speak, I needed to stop wherever I could and look for old people.''

The film begins with the question, ``Why didn't you come earlier if you wanted to learn history?''

Gerima said that was the question an old man posed when he asked about Adwa. ``He told me he was too old, I should have come earlier,'' Gerima said. Luckily, the filmmaker did find other elders who were not too old to recount the story.

He collected 20 hours of interviews for the 90-minute film -- from elders whose fathers and mothers fought at Adwa to children who still sang the proud songs of an African people who retained their independence while their neighbours succumbed to European armies.

``What we were finding was different folkloric forms of remembrance. It's amazing how precisely it's transmitted with a melody,'' said Gerima, whose film leaves a viewer with that very impression of a song.

Now, back in the United States after debuting ``Adwa'' at the Venice Film Festival, he is left to knock on doors and rent theatres in the hope its sweet strains will reach his audience. ``With a documentary it will be an uphill battle,'' he admitted.

Gerima could try to interest Hollywood again but he said he is not willing to compromise the stories he is committed to doing. ``It's not easy, what I do. It takes me years. But this weekend in Los Angeles I sat down with a (filmmaker) friend who said they cannot do the story they want to do. The stories are always compromised,'' he said.

``In some ways black filmmakers have a great deal of anxiety,'' he added. ``I would have had a heart attack.''

22:01 11-24-99

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

Ethiopia honored on film

Song and poetry opened last night's viewing of the film "Adwa: An African Victory," by Ethiopian filmmaker and producer Haile Gerima. Gerima, also a professor at Howard University, introduced his film to the approximately 250 people in attendance at the 7 p.m. showing in Kresge Auditorium.

"I am very grateful to be here and share a film I began in 1996 during the 100th Anniversary of Adwa" Gerima said. "I went to Ethiopia and documented what I could."

Gerima's film showing was one of several events of ADWA 2000, a larger event hosted by Stanford Ethiopian Student Union to commemorate the Battle of Adwa which occurred on March 2, 1896.

Through accounts from historians, poets, and other narration, this film depicts the battle in which Ethiopia conquered invading Italian troops. It marked the first African victory over a European force and was greatly significant in a time when the majority of the African continent was being conquered by Europeans.

"This isn't a celebration of a military victory," said the president of Stanford Ethiopian Student Union Abel Bogale, a senior. "It's a celebration of people's right to defend the culture and sovereignty of their state."

The Stanford Ethiopian Student Union chose to show this film and have Gerima as a keynote speaker to promote awareness about Ethiopia's history.

"As Stanford Students concerned about the representation of African history in Black Liberation Month, we are very interested in celebrating the history of Ethiopia with the Stanford Community and the larger Bay Area Community," Bogale said.

According to senior Damien Schnyder, a member of the Black Student Union, one of the specific goals of the event was to educate people about, "a glorious and inspirational event of African history that is usually left out of history books."

"Many times Africa is taught be a poor and savage continent that was conquered by European powers," said Schnyder. "But there were many civilizations beforehand that were in power."

Gerima is the first major director to create a film about the Battle of Adwa. His other films have also been about Ethiopia; he rose to fame with his first film, "Harvest - 3000 Years," which depicted the struggles of Ethiopian peasantry. Since then he has produced seven more films.

At the showing, Gerima commented that young Ethiopians now have both passion for promoting awareness, and skills and education to spread their word.

"I'm really proud to see young Ethiopians reclaim our history in such a vigorous fashion," Gerima said.

According to Stanford alumni Haeran Fisseha, the Battle of Adwa is significant to the entire black community.

"[This is a time] to remember and reflect on the victory of Adwa for all black people," Fisseha said. "The battle of Adwa should be as much a source of inspiration to black people everywhere just as Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were to the Ethiopians."

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