IMPERFECT JOURNEY-directed by Haile Gerima with Richard Kapuscinski
Famed Ethiopian director Haile Gerima left his native city of Gondor while still a young man, eventually moving to Los Angeles to study film at UCLA and then to make films of his own (including Sankofa, Harvest 3,000 Years, Adwa, all of which have been shown at CFAF). During his absence, his country suffered through the collapse of the Sellassie regime and the nightmare years of dictatorship and war that followed. Following the removal of the Derg from power in 1991, Gerima was commissioned by the BBC to return to record the condition of his people and give a sense of the new Ethiopia.
IMPERFECT JOURNEY(Ethiopia, 1994, 88 min.), directed by Haile Gerima with Richard Kapuscinski; cinematography by ; produced by the BBC. In English and Amharic with English subtitles.
Together with Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, Gerima journeyed from Gondor to the capital Addis Ababa, filming and speaking with people along the way. They film friends and acquaintances, former teachers, and total strangers, all in an effort to understand what has transpired, what could have been done differently, and what must happen in the future if Ethiopia is to move forward.
In hindsight, this was a period of interregnum for Ethiopia. The country would soon be involved in another unfortunate war with Eritrea, and to a large extent the forward movement would become mired in a new kind of stagnation. We can see the potential for this development in the film, at times overtly and at other times lying beneath the surface.
What emerges in Imperfect Journey is the kind of penetrating social analysis that one expects from Gerima (a featured filmmaker at CFAF 10 and 13), as well as deep respect for his compatriots (Amharic and non-Amharic alike), who have managed to maintain their dignity and sense of history despite years of profound hardship and loss.
Born and raised in Gondor, Ethiopia, Haile Gerima came to the U.S. in the early Seventies to study filmmaking at UCLA, and then to make films. In fact, the majority of Gerima’s film projects have examined problems facing African Americans. Although he is Ethiopia’s best-known film director, he has spent most of his career in the United States. In the mid-Seventies, he became one of a coterie of independent African-American filmmakers in L.A. (including Charles Burnett, director of Nightjohn, and Julie Dash, creator of Daughters of the Dust) that were committed to making films that depicted the African-American experience in a different way.
In 1976 he released Bush Mama, a black-and-white film about the political awakening of a black welfare mother. He also returned to Ethiopia in 1976 to film Harvest 3000 Years, still considered one of Africa’s best and most thought-provoking films.
That same year Gerima joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he continues to serve as Professor of Film and Black Studies.
In 1977 he released a documentary on the case of the Wilmington 10 titled Wilmington 10-USA 10,000, which he made with the help of students at Howard University and volunteers from the local community. In 1982 he finished Ashes and Embers, a story about African American veterans of the Vietnam War, and in 1985 he released After Winter: Sterling Brown, a documentary about African American poet Sterling Brown, also made with student cooperation.
Gerima is best known for his powerful 1993 feature film, Sankofa, which focuses on the experience of the slave trade. Sankofa’s central message is a profoundly African one: that one must know the past in order to be able to move forward. (In fact, it can be applied to many of his films.) His screening of Sankofa at the Fifth Cascade Festival, together with his dialogue with the audience following the film, remains one of the most memorable evenings in the recent history of Oregon’s African and African-American communities.
In 1994 he was commissioned by the BBC to make the documentary that would become Imperfect Journey.
Gerima’s presentation of Adwa at last year’s 13th Festival was particularly powerful for the region’s Ethiopian community. Adwa is a film that speaks to the pride and thirst for recognition among all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups–the 19th Century battle of Adwa, in which the Italian invaders were repelled by a coalition of different ethnic groups, including men and women alike. Gerima shed much light on the historical context for that story. However, he moved beyond providing simple background information on the film and its production to offer some very interesting thoughts about the complex relationship between Africans and African-Americans. It was another truly memorable evening, which was capped when an Ethiopian man rose and recited a praise poem that he had just created for Mr. Gerima.
Although Gerima worked and lived in the United States after 1969, he has maintained close ties with other African film directors. An active member of the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes and the Comité Africain des Cinéastes, Gerima has also coordinated a number of colloquia and meetings of African film directors in the United States. In addition, Gerima’s own studio, Mypheduh Films, Inc. (www.sankofa.com), is one of the leading distributors of films by Africans and African Americans in the United States.
* * *
Richard Kapuscinski is Poland’s most celebrated journalist, covering stories all over the world for Polish news for over forty years. During his four decades reporting on Asia, Latin America, and Africa, he befriended Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba. He has been sentenced to death in absentia four times.
His many books include The Emperor (about the fall of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie), Another Day of Life (about the last days of Portuguese Angola), and The Shadow of the Sun (a collection of essays based on his years living and traveling in Africa.