Haile Gerima: ‘Sankofa’

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Filmmaker, Haile Gerima. Photo by Melketsadek.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Haile Gerima, who is to receive a Vantage Award from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures this month. In October, the museum will host a retrospective of Gerima’s films including the 1993 film “Sankofa.”The restored version of the film is being released on Netflix on Sept 24th via ARRAY. Gerima tells The Treatment rather than looking down on audiences’ opinions of his films, he values them and says they have made him a better filmmaker. Gerima says he tries to defy the traditional three act storytelling structure with his films, and he discusses how his editing can feel like breathing.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition.  I'm Elvis Mitchell. I am honored to have sitting somewhere in the continent of North America today talking to me, the esteemed and renowned and deeply talented filmmaker Haile Gerima. He will have a masterclass arranged through Array here in Los Angeles, and he will be honored at the Academy Museum during its inaugural gala and given the Vantage award. It's the re-release of his 1993 film “Sankofa.” 

What I love so much about your work, and we've talked about this, is you edit your own work. And we can talk about this in “Sankofa” because you take your time with the opening credit sequence, and then the cuts get fast, and then they slow down again. It's like you're basically helping us to breathe with your editing techniques.

Haile Gerima: The point you're making is still an imperfect journey for me because as we translate our narrative story into the cinematic medium, we are also transporting our form. Every content has its own inherent form, and then the inherent form and the content has to be going through the process of your intellectual, emotional approach to structure a narrative out of all that. So to me, if we don't bring our own accent, our own narrative logic, what the hell is [it] all about then, filmmaking? So for me, those of us who have been excluded for over 100 years by this industry, one thing we have to bring along with our story is our aesthetics, our way of framing and structuring and rhythm in the story. And that's what I think jazz teaches us also.

KCRW: Music, especially jazz, has the rhythm of breathing. As we look at your work, we go from "Harvest" to "Sankofa" to "Bush Mama," the editing in those films is all really different. It feels like we can feel the heart and the blood pulsing through each one of these films.

Gerima: Well, thank you. This, to me, is a testimony. When you go to post production with such a struggle to bring your own narrative temperament, traditional technicians testified to this problem. For example, when I mixed "Bush Mama" and 'Harvest," the mixer at UCLA said, "Haile Gerima, the way you use sound hurts me.” I said, “Then I'm succeeding.” 

We are ashamed to come as primitive people into the cinematic world to transport within our primitive narrative idea, our own story, our own accent. And so for me, I glory over my primitive-ness, because I don't want to be the stereotyped, civilizational formatted three-act film storyteller because it becomes automatically toothless. That's the problem with a lot of traditional films: they become toothless by the form. The form itself is like a very hostile dentist that takes out everything. 

KCRW: How would you describe what "Sankofa" is about? 

Gerima: Well, it's about resistance and spiritualism. When I finished the film, my wife and muse, the co-producer, a filmmaker herself, we called it a resistance film, because, for us, it was what was always shaved out of our history. But also, it's really about: all of us have something we have to work out. In the case of the story here, the character of Mona, to transition into her character, Shola, she has to amend some toxic legacy she has never resolved. 

I tangled a lot with the title. I was very conflicted in using the title until I landed in my research of the Akan culture of the Adinkra symbol, there is a thing called Kra. Kra is a destabilized soul that cannot sit with the ancestors, that cannot take her or his position with the ancestors until that destabilized spirit of that person re-enters the human sphere, avenge or atone and come back. And this basically itself gives you the film’s structure. 

KCRW: There's often, [in your work]  this fear of death in a Western sense, because it's this fear of things ending rather than becoming part of a continuum, which your films are always about. The fact that there are these cycles and these fears that all intersect when life is at its best. 

Gerima: In fact, there's a film I did called "Imperfect Journey" for the BBC. And the film actually ends with this point you're just making. For me, to recognize the new is very important. Even "Teza," it ends with the new. All of us become in our existing moment, we are the fertilizers of the new. 

To me the intellectual production of our humanity, I think, is all about the future. And that's not this biblical or religious hope I'm talking about. In fact this hope itself could be an opium of a people. One has to say to oneself, I'm not the end, but I will humble myself to leave it to critical generation in the cycle of generational transaction that will appear and modify, take the useful part and use the best that human beings would leave behind.

KCRW: Talking about "Sankofa," it's funny because spiritual death and fear of that seems to be manifest between Mona and also Joe, these characters who are the most Westernized and the most corrupted by these ideals.

Gerima: To dramatize a story, you have to also locate the settings. It's not accidental that I located in the river, the confrontation of Nunu and Joe. When a son defies a mother, the battleground is in the placenta of motherhood. And if you look in the back, there are the roots. And when I looked for that location, you don't know how long I spent. When I sat for days at the slave fort, the slave fort itself began to give me images because I was open. I was not this egotistical artist trying to do a film. 

My mission is not the marketing of the film, etc. I'm trying to go through some process myself in making the film and not be an arrogant filmmaker. I sat there, and the very place started to give me ideas, started to whisper stories to me. In fact, when I crawled into the cave in Louisiana, where, once upon a time, it has housed thousands of runaway Africans in that area, I was hallucinating like I took some drugs, but I incorporated it into the script. 

So for me, I tell my students, accidental, incidental gifts are also whispered to you; we don't know why. Some gifts come. Maybe it's the state of mind you're in that you are getting these flying objects traveling towards you. Utilize them, if you don't think they fit, keep them around, analyze them, they might have a place to fit in. Again, I'm talking about the creative process that we're not allowed to do. When you think about three acts, it's at page 37, they have to make love or he has to kill her or she has to kill him in this kind of fascist format. Nothing is going to be born, my brother. Nothing is going to be born.

KCRW: When we spoke about "Sankofa" when we first met in '93, and you talked about wanting to do it in Louisiana, and you said that experience of going to Jamaica, what it forced you to do is listen to the film instead of trying to impose your own will on it.

Gerima: A lot of things were not worked out when "Sankofa" came out. My relationship with the African American community was so preoccupying. When I saw the film in Harlem with the audience, I'm sitting there watching a film that I mis-paced in the audience reaction. And I said, Dang. I learned about something I messed up in the rhythming of that sequence by sitting with the audience, but this has been my policy throughout. I don't look down upon an audience. They're my teachers to be a better filmmaker. For me, I learned filmmaking also by watching my films with Black people. "Bush Mama;" Child of Resistance." These are very, very important films within the Black community that embrace them. Black people: we're very hungry people, and you have one film that comes out to quench our hunger, we embrace it. But that's not all so good. To critically embrace it transforms the artist. 

KCRW: When we first see Sankofa in the movie, it's the power of silence that you use there. These people know, if they don't say anything, it's the best way to watch people expose themselves because people are so busy judging themselves. They don't have to wait to be asked the question. 

Gerima: I agree with you, my brother, because, to me, I think we talk too much every opportunity we have. You see, you're dealing with starved people. Very often Black actors overact because it's like my last moment in the world of acting. No white director ever dares to subdue an actor to the proportionality of performance. We overdo. We are overdoing costumes now, because we've never been costumed. The costume making sisters in Hollywood never had the opportunity to make costumes, so now they over costume every Black anything because we are starved people. 

Recognizing this bombastic expression does not correct 130-40 years of white stereotype cinema. Black people in America: it's unbelievable the kind of silent war they waged, that terrorized the plantation owners. The rapping generation, I think, has a lot to do with this idea of: Black people are deliberate, even their music. It's not a genetic property. Their music comes from silent origin, even the imagination of Black people. That's the highly developed part because of slavery. That is the most curtailed part of Black people, the unwanted part. The physical labor only is wanted where your imagination is not wanted. Therefore, the faculty of the imagination of Black people, if you weigh it, operate and get it out into a surgical room, you will find a large elephant size of the imagination. That's the only way you can explain Black literature, Black music, etc, etc.



Rebecca Mooney