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Movie Critic Review: Haile Gerima's Teza (2008)

Africa's Got Lenses

What relationship can an activist-minded citizen hope to maintain with his country?"

"Humanity mandates that each of us have the right to own our past." 

OK! A five-part series on a Hollywood movie, albeit with Eastern atmospheres of spirituality and martial arts?

That was kind of hard!

A big thank you to writer/author Muhsin Khalid for his insight on the foundations of "The Last Airbender". He has pointed out a lot of signs and signifiers from various world religions and mythology. He only confirmed the richness of the cinematic image as it documents virtually everything in a fraction of time.

We are looking forward to his article on "Khartoum" an historical epic movie in which two great actors had history twisted for them to have a confrontation that never happened in real life! (Why is it deemed so important to have the opposite characters, the protagonist and antagonist, meet in order for a dramatic high to be reached? Almost in all film genres including Mickey Mouse and Pink Panther cartoons?!)

Let me go back on my original track which is to focus more on non-Hollywood cinema, not just because I hate finance and budgets and closed doors but also because, I must say it, I have an infatuation with where Europeans make their movies (usually)! And all the more with where African movies are supposed to be shot!
In location.
In the open.
The wilderness. The expanse of everything short of the horizon.
African cinema is the ageing toddler and yet it will not pass by an era of 'how the west was won' but will soon visualize the wisdom of Mandella, the poems of Singore or S.A. Ibrahim and the narratives of Mahfouz or Soyinka.
I am not going to talk history and so let us begin with a recent African feature that has drawn universal interest and has resounded so good in Europe, Canada (Toronto Film Festival) and the USA.

There are variable elements needed for a movie to succeed. This film I am about to review took a cinema professor in a US university to be made. The Ethiopian acclaimed movie-maker Haile Gerima.
His sister revealed on the night she recevied a prize on his behalf that it had taken them (she was a co-producer) 14 years to bring this movie to the screen! Funding issues of course and politics!

"Teza" is our movie today. A 2008 Ethiopian drama that won the top award at the 2009 Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou. The film was written and directed and by Gerima who is a professor at Howard university in Washington D.C. The name "Teza" means “morning dew” in Amharic, a major Ethiopian language. The movie depicts the societal and economic impact of the events that followed the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. Set in Germany and Ethiopia, the movie examines the consequences of the exit of intellectuals from the scene in their homelands due to violence and liquidation. It also probes into their displacement or disorientation in the countries of refuge. As such the movie is quite important to Africans and the third world in general. In fact the well-known Afroamerican actor Danny Glover describes the movie as a " film that people of all cultures and background should see."

What a frame? Did the Derg really know what Lenin had taught?


The movie is a revelation of the internal struggle to stay true to one's self and one's homeland. It depicts how fiercely the protagonist (Anberber) resists losing his memory and his own past and reiterates that it is our right as humans to own and preserve our own pasts.
The story, told in two and a half hours, is about a young Ethiopian doctor Anberber (Aaron Arefe) who left his country in the eighties of last century to study medicine in the former East Germany. After graduation as a physician he decided to return to his country to play an active role in his society, help the people of his village with his expertise as a doctor.

However, our young hero finds himself trapped in various kinds of problems. Problems that stem mainly from illiteracy, ignorance, superstitious beliefs and the domination of tribal values. In this new (and old) environment our hero is haunted by memories of his childhood, "when trees bore ripe apples" as he put it, but are now dry and the lands are barren and useless.
His memories stream into the dire conditions creating a grim reality out of which the filmmaker assembles an epic work that projects the many issues echoing through third world countries.The African three horsemen of the apocalypse (poverty, disease and ignorance) gallop through the drained resources of the country. But our hero blames a fourth horseman for disaster, General Mangesto and his Derg*, who established a ruthless regime under the guise of socialism and justice while in fact it was breeding chaos, ethnic persecution and unrest and inflaming conflicts.  

Our hero falls in love and gets married. He earns a wife but loses his best friend Tesfaye (Abiye Tedla) who was his companion while they lived in exile. His friend who also favored returning home finds, in his turn, that it is impossible to achieve any of his aspirations. He falls victim to the regime's apparatus for liquidating  political opponents before he could go back to the diaspora in Europe.
Teza is a movie that recalls everything one knows about human trials and tribulations. It has that sense of documenting human feelings with a beautiful natural backdrop that makes your experience with it feel so essential and true. It is also endowed with charming music and natural sounds. The question why there is such thing as fear or suffering, violence or famine becomes like a question in quantum theory.
Despite the idealistic ways of thinking shown by Anberber and Tesfaye, the Ethiopian landscape and the natural beauty of the people, their essential goodness, give the movie a persistent flicker of life. The plot is intricately layered and has internal twists that merit a sympathetic viewer despite the relative length of the film the effect of which, I believe, is offset by excellent cinematography and dramatic presence.
* Derg: or Dergue is from Amharic language and means council or a leading group. Here it refers to the military junta led by Mengesto which ruled Ethiopia 1974-1987.

Teza On The International Scene:

This movie has garnered a lot of enthusiasm and was able to take home many prestigious prizes. It won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, the top prize at the FESPACO Film Festival in Burkina Faso in 2009 (FESPACO is comparable to the Academy Awards in the USA). It also won Best Screenplay (for Gerima) and a Special Jury Award at the 2008 Venice Film Festival.
It was entered in competition at the Carthage International Film Festival in Tunisia where it swept five categories, including Tanit D'Or for Best Film, Best Screenplay (Haile Gerima), Best Music (Vijay Ayer and Jorga Mesfin), Best Supporting Male Lead (Abeye Tedla) and Best Cinematography (Mario Masini). Thereafter its showing in the Dubai International Film Festival achieved best score for Jorga Mesfin and Vijay Ayer. The film was invited to the Toronto Film Festival, where it was also well received. The film also won many other prizes and was celebrated in more than twenty international film/cinema venues.

Notes On  Haile Gerima:
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Haile was born and raised in Gondar, Ethiopia. His father, a dramatist and playwright who traveled across the Ethiopian countryside staging local plays, was an important early influence. He immigrated to the United States in 1968. He pursued his interest by enrolling in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. "When I was growing up," he told the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to work in theater—it never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient. Film making isn't encouraged or supported by the Ethiopian government." He felt limited by theater and was resigned, notes Francoise Pfaff, to "subservient roles in Western plays."
In 1970 he had discovered the power of cinema, and moved to California to attend the University of California, where he earned Bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts degrees in film. At UCLA he joined the Los Angeles School of Black filmmakers, along with Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, Namibia), Jamaa Fanaka ("Penitentiary"), Ben Caldwell ("I and I"), Larry Clark and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).
Other film makers whom Haile creditted as influencing him include Vittorio de Sica, Fernando Solanas, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Med Hondo.

Gerima On Independent Moviemaking

“Historically, we have found that the success of our most widely distributed films has been largely attributable to grassroots support from organizations like ATHA and the Hyattsville CDC,” said filmmaker Gerima. “Engaging with communities and groups that are large and small, and that are reflective of the full cultural spectrum is the most powerful tactic in our specific methodology of distribution. This intimate and accessible approach is also symbiotic with my vision of what independent cinema should be.”
Other notable films by Gerima: Sankofa, Adwa, Bush Mama and other feature films and

Watch Teza Free On Youtube. There is a full version in German! Buy Teza from Amazon or from your local DVD store. Watch Trailer below. Thanks!


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