Recalling the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, Haile Gerima spoke about the struggle of African artists and filmmakers Monday night.
Gerima, an African filmmaker and pioneer of an independent film company, spoke to a group of more than 100 students, staff and fans at the Special Events Center. He discussed the colonization of Africa and its film industry and the importance of knowing one’s history.
Aries Hines, student and president of The Poets, a campus poetry organization, introduced Gerima. In her introductory poem, she described him as “a trail of inspiration, when ignorance is so much simpler.” Gerima, however, described himself as a “flea” battling against the elephant that is Hollywood.
Gerima urged African artists to regain a cultural component of history that was forgotten.
“All endeavors cannot be correct until we find out who the hell we are,” he said. “It is important to look at the struggle of African filmmakers now, as a paradigm to understand the struggle of Africa.”
In Africa, American and European conglomerates control nearly all film distribution outfits, Gerima said. The effect is that the true history and message of the people are tainted.
“The experience of most of the filmmakers now is roaming the world to beg money,” Gerima said. “It erodes the spirit of the story.”
African film arose out of the tradition of storytelling around the fire, a way of preserving history. People maintained a sense of identity through the stories of the past, Gerima said.
Today, as the African film industry is increasingly controlled by a narrowing group of outsiders, “the struggle becomes for the minds of Africa,” he said.
“Europeans always change the story of the storytellers, no matter how liberal they are,” he said.
It is the survival from this mental “holocaust” that must persevere.
“If you are thinking about getting Spielberg to produce your movie, you are experiencing mental rape,” Gerima said. “Our brain is more sophisticated to invent our own story. The minute American cinema began to ravage my brain, I began to look down upon my cultural heritage.”
Gerima, who is originally from Ethiopia, studied in America and is now a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“Kids in college thought I was American because I knew more of their history than my own,” he said. “We have to create space where we can tell our story … our story is the human story… and it cannot be birthed without creating space to let it be birthed.”
Gerima, who started an independent film company called Mypheduh, has been said to be one of the torchbearers of the black independent film movement. This has enabled him to not only tell his story, but also to offer aspiring filmmakers a chance to express themselves.
Critically acclaimed and revered, Gerima has given both Africans and African-Americans a voice.
The themes people portray “are universal,” and as old as “cave times,” Gerima said. “It’s the way the story is told, that is something new.”