Ethiopian film wins African ‘Oscar’

(By Katrina Manson in Ouagadougou Sunday, 8 March 2009)

It must be something of a relief for Haile Gerima that his film, Teza, has just been voted Africa’s best movie. After all, it took him 14 years to make it.
So meticulous is the award-winning Ethiopian-born, US-based director that he refused to compromise on a single aspect of the harrowing, moving story even if that meant the lead actor having to speak most of his lines in Amharic, a language he didn’t know.
Teza — which won best film this weekend at the Fespaco festival, Africa’s equivalent of the Oscars – tells the story of a young medical research scientist from Ethiopia who returns home after training in Germany to find a bloodletting authoritarian regime in place of the land of liberty and development for which he dreamed.
Mr Gerima not only directed the feature, but he also researched it, wrote it, spent years raising money for it, edited it, composed the soundtrack, and auditioned every actor himself.
“He will not change anything for the sake of money,” explains his sister and associate producer Selome Gerima. “Nobody can condition him but it means it’s not easy to make a film.”
Judges praised the film, for its strength, depth and poetry conveying the dashed hopes of a returning intellectual elite. Stunning village vistas and shoulder-dancing amid ululations in bars capture an expressive, vital Ethiopian culture.
Unlike many Hollywood blockbusters about Africa in crisis, such as Blood Diamond or The Last King of Scotland, the director did not cast a popular white actor in the key role. Instead he went back and forth to his home village of Gondar, in remote northwestern Ethiopia, and cast the villagers who had lived through the summary executions of the Red Terror, and witnessed first-hand the brutal rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam from 1974 until 1991.
“All the films [in Hollywood] are negative towards us as Africans,” explained his sister. “They always want to have a white celebrity fighting for Africans’ rights.”
Almost the only whites in Teza are right-wing German extremists who throw the hero out of a window in an unprovoked attack that nearly kills him. In real life, the incident on which this scene is based, the man died, and the film is dedicated to all the black people who have been “killed just for being black”.
The lead role of Anberber, an idealistic Ethiopian academic who refuses to yield to horrific killings meted out against political dissidents and villagers alike, is played by US-based Ethiopian Aron Harefe, who had never acted before and couldn’t speak the language.
“He didn’t read Amharic so somebody had to read him every line,” said Ms Gerima, the producer. “It was amazing.”
Fespaco – which takes place once every two years — offers Africa one of the few opportunities to showcase films made on the continent to African audiences. And that’s one reason why Ms Gerima is building four cinema halls in her home city of Addis Ababa herself. “You waste all this time on the making of the film and then it’s so hard to get it shown,” she said. “Distribution is a heck of a problem.” (

Leave a Reply

Photo Gallery

Designed by Nebxstudios