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Stoking the Fire: A Conversation with Haile Gerima

With a new Academy Museum retrospective and his film "Sankofa" recently restored, the Ethiopian filmmaker discusses his complex career.
Aaron E. Hunt
Haile Gerima
Haile Gerima (left) on the set of Harvest: 3,000 Years
When I first approached Haile Gerima to talk with me about his work two years ago, he declined. I had been eager to talk with him, the uncompromisingly independent artist behind narrative films like Harvest 3,000 Years (1975), Bush Mama (1979), and Sankofa (1993). But I told him I respected his decision, and we kept in touch over email. He appreciated that I persisted, and later mailed me copies of Wilmington 10 -- U.S.A. 10,000 (1979), After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985), and Imperfect Journey (1994), his virtually inaccessible documentaries. I’d sit with these films for years before the prospect of an interview with Gerima came up again. No stranger to the power of waiting or to the power of “no,” he had turned down numerous opportunities to restore or distribute his films with third parties, brooking no creative compromise. Finally, he yielded to an elaborate retrospective at the Academy Museum, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and his Comrades” (now through November 14), where audiences can see his shorts, narratives, and documentaries playing in one space.
In Wilmington 10 -- U.S.A. 10,000, Gerima talks with the parents of the 10 people who were falsely accused of burning down a white-owned grocery store. He talks with another political prisoner, Assata Shakur, just before she escaped a maximum-security unit of the Clinton Correctional Facility. In After Winter: Sterling Brown, he films the eponymous poet muse about American cultural movements of the time; in Imperfect Journey, he wanders the Ethiopian city of Gonder, where he grew up, and the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, to talk with people living under the EDRPF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front); in Adwa, he returns to Gonder to capture oral histories of the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-96). Through all his documentaries, Gerima avoids identifying the people in front of his camera and uses an interviewing technique he calls “stoking the fire,” in which he listens without steering the conversation, allowing interviewees to find and express what they most desire. For Gerima, documentaries ought to be less about subjugating audiences to facts and as much about storytelling as his narrative films, which he remains more known for.
Refusing the paternalistic bond of a third-party distributor, he self-distributed Sankofa to Black communities, city to city, and accumulated over $2 million, which he used to erect a combination bookstore, café, and community hub where he edits his films in Washington DC. Sankofa follows Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), a fashion model from the present day, who is transported into the Antebellum South and experiences slavery firsthand. Gerima opened up to interviews to promote the new 4K restoration of the film, now streaming on Netflix.  I had many questions about his self-sustainable distribution methods and independent economy of filmmaking, but when I first asked him about his aesthetic choices, Gerima expressed, with some surprise, how rare it was for him to be able to discuss the “grammatic arrangement” of his films. From then on, I shifted the focus of my questions to form. Through Zoom, he spoke with me from his editing bay at Sankofa DC to talk about how he invites audiences and critics from his community into his filmmaking process. I’ve learned invaluable lessons from Gerima’s films, past interviews, and our online interactions, even from his initial rejection. Our two-part interview, essentially unedited in an attempt to retain Gerima’s inimitable language, is full of his characteristic fervor, historical and futuristic wisdom, and admitted imperfections. The nature of his collaboration with mainstream filmmaker and distributor Ava Duvernay on the restoration and release of Sankofa is only grazed in our discussion. Streaming the film on Netflix in partnership with her distribution company, Array, may not seem to align with Gerima’s unflinching commitment to radically independent filmmaking. But he has always candidly criticized Duvernay’s films, and when she first came to meet him at Howard University, where he taught for decades, he locked himself in his office and refused to come out. At the same time, he has celebrated her “survivalist” stratagem to infiltrate and stake out her own territory in the industry. Still, the iconoclast’s emergence into mainstream spaces feels polarizing. The irony of the Academy Museum giving Gerima, a legendary Ethiopian storyteller, an award beside Sophia Loren, an icon from Italy, the country that twice attempted to colonize Ethiopia, at the opening gala presented by Rolex, speaks to the industry’s violently short memory. It also feels paradoxical to celebrate an elaborate retrospective of Gerima’s films playing inside a museum designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano with funding from the billionaire Pritzker dynasty.
But Gerima calls the streaming deal a “learning procedure,” perhaps suggesting a “sober transaction” for resources. Hence this rare opportunity to see his films in one venue and presented with such polish: digitally restored or playing on new prints, and to hear his rousing words again in conversation.
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NOTEBOOK: Many restorations can look overcorrected, artificially clean, so I appreciated that the restored Sankofa maintained its organic grain structure and grime. Can you talk about the process of your first restoration—or was Ashes & Embers [1982] the first?
HAILE GERIMA: This is actually the first restoration. Ashes & Embers was a transfer. This was an outright restoration, and my wife [Shirikiana Aina], my co-producer, and I were directly involved in the grading of the film, so it was a very respectful arrangement. Oftentimes they will take your film but not involve you in the restoration. Then I break up. I’ve tried it with some archives, but the arrangement with Ava and Array is what I’ve been waiting for, and she has the resources to go through with it all the way. So, I’m very lucky.
NOTEBOOK: One of the iconic shots of Sankofa looks up at Mona reconsidering her cane knife from a low angle, empowering her just before she finds the strength to defend herself. In Harvest 3,000 Years, you flip the traditional language and look down on the landlord in power and up at one of his workers. Can you talk about your use of low and high angles throughout your work?
GERIMA: My whole struggle has been to empower my thought system. First, you have a thought system, then you translate your thought system into its visual possibility. The success is imperfect, I will not tell you it’s absolute, but the attempt is how I think, which was often discouraged in a film school setting or by the conventional cinema. I was defending and empowering that part as something coherent to me. It was incoherent to the “official” film culture, or those who feel every film must be this way or that way. So, in Harvest 3,000 Years, the specific point you took was the landlord. I’m not only shooting him down, but I’m also shooting his baldhead that will never breed hair again. And that’s juxtaposed with the peasant woman from the family he exploits, and the shaving of her head. But hers is a hair that will grow back again. So, beyond the exploitative relationship, which the camera has to take a position on, it’s also a futuristic statement that the oppressors will disappear—that the oppressed will always rise up and hopefully make history. So that’s very important. And again, I tried to do that in the enslavement context. I felt that, besides your own cultural framing of this story in the context of your own filmic accent, it is also a class struggle within the content, and you need to pay attention to how you frame it. So those were the things that I tried and thank you for pointing them out. Not many people get to spend time in the grammatic arrangement of cinematic elements and the form and content, et cetera.
NOTEBOOK: When you shot the interview in your documentary Wilmington 10, U.S.A. 10,000 from the other side of a highway and zoom into the woman you’re interviewing on the porch,it caught me off guard. I had never seen an interview shot like that. Zooms are an essential part of your grammar throughout your films. When did you realize this was a tool that resonated with you?
GERIMA: I hope you will get to see the restored version of Wilmington 10 now. They’re doing the restoration somehow now for the Academy Museum. The sound in that scene is defective, but now they have apparently restored it nicely. Even when I teach, I try to tell people, first: A director like me may not be able to execute that shot. But coming up with the shot and having, luckily, a cinematographer that could make it happen is the second part. I think this is where people confuse the relationship between cinematographers and directors. Coming up with the shot is very natural to me, but if I had to execute it the shot would not have come out that good. [laughs] So there’s this symbiotic relationship between the cinematographers I choose, the people I work with, and my own imagination. If you remember that scene in Harvest from the bridge where the madman lives. The peasant wife, after she milks the cow and she’s going down, this zoom has been done twice. First, when she goes down and we zoom back out. The other, when the father is called by the landlord and he runs uphill. When it showed at the New Directors series in New York, someone was saying, “That was a very long shot, couldn’t you have cut it?” And I said, “We’re not in a world where we can take elevators,” and to me, that was an integral part of this feudal society. I wanted to make sure the exhaustive circumstances we put on people when we enslave them or exploit them as serfs, was palpable. Even if you look at Bush Mama, that prison hole scene, I could never do that! I show my students that scene and I tell them, “You see that shot here? Yes, I came up with it! But if you ask me to execute it, I can’t.” Roderick Young was dancing with the camera. To this day, I can never forget his contribution. And in a very interesting way, he became homeless, and this was one of the early casualties of Black cinematographers in the system, neglected and destroyed. So that’s a tribute shot for me, because oftentimes when you teach young people their ego is so insurmountable, their ego is so bombastic, that they don’t know the distribution of responsibility, and it becomes a very poisonous environment. In my case, I know which people I am joining with as contributors to my vision. I have to know where my camera stands first. My perspective—nobody messes with that and then I streamline my perspective based on the reality of the setting and the actors. The contribution of people is a part of it, including the actors.
NOTEBOOK: My mind was also blown by the lengthy Assata Shakur interview in Wilmington 10 -- U.S.A. 10,000, which, incredibly, you must have filmed the same year she escaped a maximum security unit of the Clinton Correctional Facility. What’s the story here?
GERIMA: I’ll tell you something a lot of people don’t know. We fought to get to the prison to film her. At the time we were shooting her, she was apparently planning to escape. She had tension, a stomach problem going on, and I didn’t pay attention. When we were shooting, we were there filming her, but she was in that mode of escape. I’ll tell you—I met her in Cuba later—I didn’t capture her strength. Assata, that day, she was anxiously–it’s like the enslaved planning to run away while still talking to the landlord—being filmed and having to make sure her environment is calm. It was amazing. When we finished, Walter Cronkite’s people came to buy the footage. They had heard we interviewed her just before she escaped. And we said, “We don’t have nothing, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, my wife and I are proud; we never gave footage of Assata to the press. When I met with her, I told her we were offered things to give her images up. My faculty worked on the film, my cinematographer Skip Norman. We were also training students, creating the distribution of responsibilities with students, and we had a production approach that we called “stoking the fire.”
From camera to sound, we don’t want to poke a microphone the way the official industry shoves microphones on Black people. Our job is to let Black people tell us, our job is to look at them pleading: tell me, who are you? Never interrupt the interviewee, never poke the people to say what we want them to say. So, I developed this concept we called “stoking the fire,” in sound and camera, where we assume every walking Black person has a flame inside covered in the ashes of many concerns. Generational transaction often gets dislocated; Black folks don’t really tell their children—so, I developed this idea by saying, “The fire is there. I will not transplant the flame. They have it, let’s stoke it.” The second part of it was, I told my crew, “I’m not interested in young revolutionaries, because I don’t know what they’ll become tomorrow.” I wanted to know who bred them, who are the parents behind these people? So, we made sure that the film became about the parents of the Wilmington 10. I was not interested in young people, because I come from the Black Panther party period of revolt when the past was undermined as if nothing had happened before. So, I wanted to make sure we did not create a new bombastic generation that was politically correct and dogmatically trying to change the world overnight.
I was interested in the Black people we talked to, and I was able to find philosophers among them. These are house-cleaning people, one is a mason, who is like a Marx. [laughs] I told my students this. A philosopher, sitting on the porch, if you remember, a dark-skinned short guy, like 70 years old. And his wife, Mrs. White, she was like a philosopher, talking about her idea of struggle, she says, “I don’t like to hide when I fight back. I want the white man to see that I threw the stone.” These are very important things for young Black students to watch. So, the thing I have a little bit of anxiety about with Assata Shakur was that we didn’t get to interview her mother, who was also from Wilmington, North Carolina. That’s where I failed. Again, it could be economic, it could have been any number of excuses in my situation, but I’m just giving you this fire idea—stories around the fire—interview style that is not officially dictatorial, or a fascistic approach to interviewing. I wanted to premeditate nothing but be surprised. There were times where the cameraman left the camera crying. One of the women, whose son is one of the Wilmington 10, says she is just an ordinary Black woman facing the big-government system that swallowed her son. To this day, when I see her scene, I cry. Why? Because we did not detour it, we were just the recipients there to catch it. [This was] not a premeditated Black protest movie. I wanted to make a film about folks.
NOTEBOOK: I appreciated that you didn’t introduce the interviewees’ names or job titles until the very end of the film, unlike a traditional, western documentary or news media, which tries to influence viewers with someone's credentials before they've even spoken.
GERIMA: You hit it. If you ask my students they’ll tell you that identification—this idea of documentary: the professor vs. the non-professor—it’s a dilemma, and you create a class system. I felt, “No.” We identify them at the end. Thank you for noticing it.
NOTEBOOK: Suffering from PTSD after a tour in the Vietnam War, Ned shows up at his ex-wife’s apartment and makes a scene in Ashes & Embers. Eventually, his young song comes out to defend his mother and exclaims, “My father died in Vietnam!” The line echoes until it breaks out of the diegetic soundscape into a voice-over, provoking the viewer to feel how it has seared into Ned’s memory. Can you talk about this scene and your use of sound design/editing?
GERIMA: I’ll tell you one thing about that scene. For me, I don’t know since when, but I’ve always told my students, “Sound, we are told, doesn’t die.” It travels at the speed of light. It doesn’t die. This means that a young Black kid could be a superman with a microphone traveling faster to catch the Blues, the song, the cry of Black people. I was building those ricocheting sounds in that scene physically—in the editing room, that’s really when the film begins to talk to me, begins to be innovative. I do not go into the editing room with premeditated scissors and knife. I don’t. I spend so much time editing, even people who come to help me get tired and leave me, and I’ll be the only guy in the editing room. I want the film to inspire me in its new life now. From the idea of the script, where it came from, the film moving in front of you teaches you its own cinematic life. Until now, it was just in your head, in your brain. It’s so lightweight, so dimensionless, you don’t feel the mass of a shot or an imaginative idea. Concretized for the first time, it appears as an image, it’s a new life. Often, we try to, by the dictatorship of the oppressive cinematic tradition or convention, keep it to its dwarf life, pre its film life. This is how many films die.
A lot of films that transform the filmmaker and themselves in the editing room become better films. I would say most of the films we like came out of this creative process. Otherwise, for me, even with a fiction film, I throw the script away. When I’m in the editing room, I want the new life to teach me its own structural identity. I trust that it came out of the imaginative faculty of my brain. Now, it’s concretely captured like a mouse you catch in a trap. Now, it’s in front of you. It can teach you to transform, instead of being this egotistical, “I made it, it’s my film.” It teaches you to be a student of your own story. I like that. And so, my whole life, even now I’m in the editing room, one’s on the Italo-Ethiopian War, and the Maroon runaways folks. I am quantitatively attacking it without a premeditated idea of what it should be. No, I’m learning from the film to find its own inner identity, inner depth. That makes me alive. I’m alive because I’m in the editing room. I’m in the editing room just to live longer. [laughs] I remember when my dad said, don’t retire from the university, you know, you’ll grow old, professors die, dadada, I told him, “University has never been my life. My life has been filmmaking.” It’s when I quit filmmaking that I’m gone. [laughs]
It does that for me. I’m full of life. If you come to Sankofa, you’ll see that I live a very happy, excited life outside of the mainstream and toxic industry gossip and who’s what, et cetera. Just in that editing room, I tell Ava that’s my cave. When I get into my cave, I’m the happiest person. So, again, because I’m a student of film till I die, the editing room is where the film language is housed. It is there you will learn if you’re willing, if you’re not egotistical, and instead say, “What am I? Did you come out of my creation? Who are you?” Then it starts to tell you what you thought was an ending was not really an ending, it’s somewhere in the middle or it starts the film. I’ve always argued with my friends from my student times, I’m not interested in ending films, because the danger of cinema itself is how it ends. It ends making the world normal, when in fact we live in a very abnormal world. So, I always tell my friends, I always want to start at the end of my film. I don’t want to end a movie. I want the ending to be the beginning of my movie. Not the sequel idea or the industry kind, but more like the dialectics of what is born now, what is the thing that shoots out from this whole turmoil, and this new drama? Success or not, this is how I always try to exit the narrative structure of all my films. If we see a homeless movie, do we go back to our big dinner of steak and wine next door to homeless people in tents? The contradictions of this world. A good film, I think, haunts you all the way, not like a horror movie. Social issue films should haunt you all the way to your house because you are also part of the problem. As a filmmaker, some might say, “I’m not part of the problem.” No. You are part of the problem. Filmmakers are middle-class folks, so certainly we are part of the problem, but we can also be part of the solution if we can be aware of our own contradictions.
NOTEBOOK: I noticed that, in all your films but Sankofa, you transition between different periods of time nonlinearly through cutting. But in Sankofa, the transition to the past occurs in-camera, in a single shot. I might be overthinking it but...
GERIMA: It’s my same struggle my brother, that’s why I say I embark on an imperfect journey in cinema, because I am agonized by the issues you’re raising. For me, there is no law and order in cinema. Cinema life is a dream. A dream has no law-and-order logic. One minute you’re in the air, the other a snake is flying next to you. We are in a world now where we don’t pay much attention to dreams. I remember asking my students a few times what they’ve dreamt. Most of them didn’t have a dream. Then I said, write your dream before you come to the next class, and it was very hard for them because they have been neglecting their dreams. They didn’t have to remember it and evoke it, et cetera. Part of what’s killing cinema is this commercial ordering of a straight jacket, three-act, motion picture rule—anticinema. Because it arrests this imaginative structure that you’re noticing. It’s like jazz, for example, you can never put the European judgment on this African seed that has transformed into its American life. Music has always been a puzzle to Europeans because they cannot see the logic. The different instruments could just be Blues, but when they enter into a relationship, they enter this jazzified planet.
I think cinema, especially our cinema—where is it, its identity? What is it? How much are we empowering identity if all of us are mimicking three-act conditioning, formula cinema? Our own primitive accent, which is a challenge to transform, stays frozen, because the system discourages it, calls it primitive, we join in and call it primitive, we leave it aside and we join studied, formula cinema. This convention is killing a lot of young people who otherwise could be innovative filmmakers instead of imitative filmmakers. This is the struggle of the new generation. It may not be visible for a long time, but this, to me in the end, after you do this three-act thing, you start to find out your film is toothless. Most know this, by the way: the tooth is taken out once you uniform a narrative story under the dictatorship of Eurocentric narrative, which can conveniently be understood by producers, lawyers, and commercial people. They’re enabling these films to continue to damnify the intellectual growth of the masses. For me, cinemas should provoke a transformation in the masses. I know Hollywood and the industry does not take responsibility. For 130 years white supremacy has created the monsters that stormed the capital, the culturally nurtured white supremacist victim. The police force, the same thing, white supremacy gave them a distorted mindset and they go around killing Black people and non-white people. For me, the cultural diet is connected to the backwardness of a population of people. The richest country, America, is also a home of backward attorneys of the ignorant, instead of a heightened, highly evolving culture of masses of people who critically think. Even now, critical thinking is criminal. They try to put critical thinking into a concentration camp. That is going on now. I thought going to school was to think critically. No, they are against it even in school. Parents are saying: “Standardize, fascistically, my daughter or my son, but don’t make them think.” This is unheard of. This doesn’t go together with education. School means critical thinking, transforming, and asking. I never liked students who never questioned what I present. They have to critically think about it and take me to task. Then we start to develop an even better idea together. This is the responsibility of the cultural salad bar, the cultural diet of America. It’s a global cultural diet: the middle class in Africa, Latin America, Asia. America has, in its pigeon form even, created the idea of this American middle class. Especially after the Second World War, the American empire came to power and English culture as an idea, the language itself—why speak English? Because I was the cultural colony of English. It’s an empire built on the English language. Hollywood was the highest transformer of this imperialism. If you look at the Latin American filmmakers who used cinema as a weapon—some of these filmmakers went to school in America in the 1970s, when these films were major factors in Cuba, Brazil, Chile—their films were being brainwashed. There was an Argentinian cinematic tradition where the actors looked like American actors. There was an Argentinian Cary Grant, because he looked like Cary Grant. Because America was giving us the aesthetics of our manhood, our womanhood, the aesthetics of what is attractive, our desire is warped—we don’t admit often when we have the virus of hatred for women who look like our mothers and sisters, et cetera, because Hollywood has hijacked our desire even. The sex symbol itself is the most distorted vocabulary. It tortures a lot of young filmmakers when they go to cast their films. Many Black people don’t make it to the screen because they don’t fit the stereotype. So, I don’t know, I went all over the place to explain something, I hope you forgive me.
NOTEBOOK: You see that in a lot of countries' cinemas to this day, including Philippine cinema: Filipino actors being called the Marlon Brando or the James Deans, et cetera, of the Philippines.
GERIMA: They started with Hawaii and the Philippines, and that whole idea they took to Latin America. That’s how it went.
NOTEBOOK: How do you feel about film distribution in the age of streaming giants like Netflix?
GERIMA: This tendency is dangerous. It could be a regeneration of the white power structure in a new medium. This is how Hollywood began anyways. The Facebook guy, the Google guy, the Netflix guy, all those kids, that’s how it began. Our ancestors were around those young people when they began all those things. We’re watching it, so that’s why I’m very leery about it. I’ve told Ava about this. [laughs] But what I see with Ava, trying to start her own distribution, I’m all with it. I’m a fellow traveler because she recognizes this and builds her own situation. To me, Netflix is not really our Netflix, or Google or Zoom. By the way, I only know Netflix and Amazon, the guy who just spent so much money to fly for five seconds over homeless people and a disintegrating system. Fascism—we’re not going to see stormtroopers. Fascism is a hedonistic, careless, capitalist laughing at homelessness, laughing at the economic disintegration that is actually hovering all over the world now. These are the distributors, these are the young people, I see them coming, and I’m going to tell you I’m very leery about it.
I talked to Ava about how we’re coming into it, for how long, and how much our intellectual property will be extricated at a certain point. It was all pragmatic, and it is also, for me, a learning procedure.
  II
Haile Gerima (left) on the set of Ashes and Embers
[Haile and I reconvene at a later date, this time he’s back home in his editing bay at Sankofa.]
NOTEBOOK: I’ve long been inspired by the story of how you distributed Sankofa to Black communities city to city, but in truth I hardly know it. You can only read so much about it in a handful of publications. Can you tell me more about what that looked like?
GERIMA: When I was still a student at UCLA, Larry Clark, who was another filmmaker at the film school, used to organize community screenings in the inner cities. How do you give the very people that you feel need to be part of the creative process access to you, the filmmaker, so they can give you feedback? Those who have a stake in the content and form of your story are the community you claim to communicate with. I have seen community screenings before, like in Oakland, where I saw responses and feedback from people. I’ve always felt that your strength has to come from a community you have a certain affinity with. White spaces, or white supremacist spaces can be hostile environments. Bridging that gap between the filmmaker and the community is actually a major part of developing your narrative form and your personal growth as a storyteller. So when I came to Washington to teach at Howard University, I brought this idea of community film screenings. My wife was also part of that movement. We started showing films that we cared about, but had no distributors, to the African-American community here in Washington DC. We even used to screen films in the street. From there, my wife and I started a distribution company.
Although I had a distributor for my films at the time, I thought the relationship between these so-called arthouse or independent distributors and filmmakers was very unfair. So we tried to distribute about 20 or 30 films from African and African-American communities, but due to the lack of cash flow, could not adequately distribute the work of our friends. We had to abandon the films and retreat to distribute our own productions. We’re still opening films by four-walling theaters in the Washington DC area, building this awareness of the community as power. My wife did a film called Brick by Brick, the funds of which came from bake sales, garage sales, and film screenings. So before Sankofa, we did this kind of limited engagement and distribution.
We opened Sarraounia from Med Hondo, a very important filmmaker from Mauritania. For this film, we had a theater four-walled for a whole week, or maybe one long weekend, and we had a very sold out box office experience. Without a community, it’s hard to gauge where you are in your work or your own evolution. So it’s very connected in a triangular way: the audience, the film, the film criticism—when the criticism is not fashioned after European film criticism, which is very uninvolved in the production process and watching films with a community. The critics themselves start to develop a critical language among themselves, and that’s what’s wrong with Hollywood, mainstream criticism. They become a class of their own, and their referential point of view becomes very closed, their language becomes the same, and it becomes a competition of who does what best. In the process, the actual film is forgotten, the artist’s work is forgotten, the community is forgotten.
So, fundamentally, it’s a very holistic idea of one’s needs as a storyteller. You cannot just be christened by a film school to be a filmmaker. Where’s the community? In filmmaking you’re talking about the structure, the pace, and the rhythm. If these aren’t tested within a community you isolate yourself, and lose faith in the community. It’s not just about getting your film seen, but also the feedback to improve your own narrative journey. By the time I did Sankofa, I was already very committed to the community’s power. We were also looking for feedback on distribution, but on our own terms. We were nobody, but we had terms. We would demand discussions not only by filmmakers, crew, and actors, but also people we believed were our community film critics, to have a discussion with the audience at the end of the film—so it was part of the whole cultural evolution we were interested in.
By the time we did Sankofa, we just had to induct the community to help us wholeheartedly. By the end we had our Sankofa family, we used to call them our airport, our airport that helped us go and land anywhere safely. I left teaching for 2-3 years to be educated by the community for my own film evolution.
NOTEBOOK: Do you ever re-edit a film based on this feedback or do you bring that knowledge into the next film?
GERIMA: To the next film. For example, when I had a screening in Harlem, in the structure of the film I knew where I misjudged the pace at a certain point. The way I had edited the film, there was a very nonsynchronic rupture that educated me about transitions. Again, we had audiences, but I also have, at all times, from the script to the rough edit of the film, always subjected my work to feedback from the community. There are many educational outcomes in this kind of process, which enables you to know you’re going in the right direction. The difficult thing is that we don’t have the resources to make films back to back, so there is a span of time in between films for people in my circumstances when we are resting as filmmakers. But if you participate in the screenings of your film, you’re improving your cinematic language from whatever reactions transpire in different audiences. For example, when the film showed in South Africa, it was another school for me. In Ghana, it was brief, but again, for me, it was a crucial thing. Sometimes filmmakers have a tendency to Federal Express their films to an audience. They are too obsessed with film festivals and film aficionados being what adjudicates and sanctions their films. Sometimes, these entrapments contribute to the death of a storyteller. For me, the blood transfusion for my circumstances is showing the film to a community that is hungry for the same reasons you were hungry to make the film. You made the film to quench your hunger, therefore the hungry community becomes your best University. I measure it over and above film school.
NOTEBOOK: I’m sure there are many, but is there a particularly memorable lesson you learned from your audience engagements?
GERIMA: I got some of the best feedback from a Federal Prison in Ohio. The screening there was unforgettable. For one, the prisoners appraisal and their critical eye in reading the film. Oftentimes the hungry community praises you for quenching their hunger, but they cannot think critically because it is the most discouraged part of the experience, especially for egotistical filmmakers who are offended when the community gives them critical feedback—especially a community they feel has no cinematic knowledge. Filmmakers are forgiven in hungry communities. In the prison, I found high-caliber film observers who read in and out of the film and it was a very enriching experience.
There was also this old woman in Harlem who liked Sankofa, she was like 85 years old. She hugged me crying and chastised me, saying, “You are a vessel for this story. Never think it was made in your power.” It’s a humbling experience for an ordinary woman to tell me I’m only a vessel, to not go tripping on the success that I’m getting. The other part of it is, if you’re coming to a community that’s very discouraged from being equal partners in the cultural evolution, it’s a very dangerous world. When you come from a world of festival prizes, you disconnect your film from the say of the community.
It’s not a mystery. When you suddenly become a chorus to your own destruction, it’s visible. Why are you interested in those things that are self-destructive? Why do you have an affinity for fame? Why do you want fame? Young people have to overcome that by asking, what is fame and what do I need it for? Even fame is not my culture. To be highlighted from the rest of society is not my culture. My culture is a community of people. I grew up in that context, so for me, I was not inundated with this world. But young people are born into a very abnormal social  relationship, and they think it’s normal because they’re born into it and social furniture becomes normal. People lose who they are in trying to fit into a social description. It’s very difficult for young people, and I feel sorry for them. It’s the most difficult thing to be born into. Because it’s normal, it’s difficult to warn them. They won’t believe you because it’s normal to be exploited. Maybe ambitiousness is the problem. Stop being ambitious, and learn how to say no. I want my daughters to learn “No” when something is not acceptable. I don’t want them to have to calculate and say, “If I do this, I’ll get this, if I do that, I’ll get that.” This is opportunistic, unethical human behavior. The fascist I know is fascist, but it’s seductions work on people because it has created a colonial sphere where people crave for a lifestyle within that entity. Let’s take that and work it out in our films, in our stories to degauss it, snip it down to its core issue. I think we need to address our own inner needs, which are maybe distorted needs. Blind ambitiousness, what is it for? For me, it begins with that and it addresses all the issues. Going to show your films at festivals, don’t let it go to your head. Why are you walking differently because your films showed someplace [laughs], why are you changing who you are because of fame? Why don’t people have access to you anymore? These things are alien to me.
NOTEBOOK: Because your films take on new life in the editing process and are so uniquely nonlinear, I wonder what your screenwriting process looks like.
GERIMA: I fought not to give birth to my stories in the three-act dictatorship, Aristostleian bullshit. To me, how you get pregnant with ideas, and how you bring ideas into fruition in screen form, has its own organic process that individuals possess. It all originates from your narrative logic, where is that? It’s in the compartment of your imaginative faculty. That’s where the musical notes are born for a jazz musician, in seed form. So I don’t intellectually interfere with my brain, to fit it into a prefabricated bottle. That amounts to killing your story. So I don’t write in sequential order if it is not born in sequential order. Sequences and scenes and moments and images or interactions that are created for different reasons in the faculties of my imagination without logic. Logic is the enemy of art. I apply logic once I have finished the birthing process. In other words, I bring into the earth the screenplay in its ripe moment, I write it down when it’s ripe. I won’t sit down and write it from beginning to end. Manipulating time and space is logic, the brain has no logic. When I decided to transition to filmmaking, I felt filmmaking had no government logic or language. There’s no green light or red light or law and order in the faculty of the imagination. It’s irrationally born. Once it’s born, you can study it to find its own logic and fashion it accordingly.
Most people sit down to write the formula, but the formula stops your narrative from ushering itself into the world without interference. The one thing that’s different about all human beings is our thought system. Even if it has a common cultural base, particular origin, all individual human beings have a thought system that’s completely different than other people’s. You’re not going to tell Romeo and Juliet better than Shakespeare, but there is a love story you can tell because you are a new voice. The only thing new on this earth is the artist. Their voice is new, and it’s their job to empower it, not to kill it with the committee of mainstream film culture. From the jump, my fight in the film school was defending the way I think and the way my thought system works. I knew, in a very primitive way, that I was fighting to defend my voice, and it brought me a lot of crisis. Your uniqueness is ripped off by uniformity. It’s almost fascism to put all your stories into a three-act formula. It’s very violent. It has become global now. Most everybody is studying Western, mainstream narrative logic. So it’s important to defend how you think, converted, inverted, concave, it doesn’t matter. For me, killing your narrative accent is suicide. It’s not worth making movies after that. I’m not excited to do three-act shit. In fact, many intelligent people who work in the industry know this issue.
I give birth to what is ripe on the ground, meaning the piece of paper, or on the laptop, then another one comes when it’s ripe. Then I start to structure it using my intellectual capacity. But I arrange it after. Once I have like a hundred twenty or one hundred thirty scenes, I begin to imagine its order with my imaginative and intellectual mind, without making the intellectual the adjudicators of my emotional narratives.
NOTEBOOK: Because of all the time it can take to get a film made, do you practice any other art form to express yourself more immediately?
GERIMA: At all times you can make a film. You can always borrow a camera from a friend. If you don’t have the money you can shoot your own feet, your own hands, and make a movie. I have several feature scripts I haven’t made, but I don’t make that my imprisonment. I’m making documentary films. There’s always something you can do to keep the filmmaking world going. I don’t believe in money deciding that. Technology itself is going through a revolution, any small camera works. If you think big, of course, you’ll need money. You can make a movie with a still camera, or MiniDV. I shot some of my documentaries with MiniDV cameras. So part of it is liberating yourself from thinking you can’t make anything if you can’t do the big thing. But be realistic about your reality, what do you have? You always have something. I’m telling you, my brother, under your nose there is always a story to be told. Liberate your mind and work on anything you have.
Russian filmmakers, the Kuleshov group, they didn’t have money! The revolution happened and they were using all the film to practice filmmaking. And that became the Russian cinema, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, all of these people emerged out of poverty, a very poor environment for film production. And they’re more innovative than Hollywood with all the cinema they have! Cuban filmmakers made history in cinema, Latin Americans made history in cinema, economically, by making films on a budget that is their own reality. So to me, it’s this American idea. If you want to destroy cars, destroy buildings, commit sexual violence against women and have cars flying into the bedroom, colliding into the sex scene, [laughs] all this shit, it automatically disqualifies it from being the type of filmmaking I’m talking about. So I think there’s always something under your nose that you can address.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your decision to show yourself on camera in some of your documentaries? I’m especially thinking about Imperfect Journey, where your hands can often be seen in the corner of the frame holding the hands of the interviewee.
GERIMA: I assign my camera crew to catch natural things, not staged things. In Imperfect Journey, these women are like my mothers, my extensions. I wanted logical intimacy without making the film about the filmmaker. But for me, parts of me had to be in it. Holding the old woman’s hand is why she poured out her story to me. I wanted her to trust me with the story of her son. I never wanted to do an “official” documentary. I hate that. I don’t like the Ken Burns, fascist documentary, the documentary that tells you everything, doesn’t want to engage you as a storyteller. For me, even my documentary films are about storytelling, embracing the subject matter as my own, and diving into it. I treat it like a fiction film. The editing of the documentary film I’m doing now is very folkloric. I’m not just interested in facts for this Italo-Ethiopian War film I’m doing. I don’t care about the facts, you can go to history books for that. I’m interested in humanizing facts. Facts have to be nationalized by human emotion because facts have been dehumanized, decapitated from the people who need them, and used as a weapon against them. The fact people are the people who tell history.
Just like how you pointed out how I don’t use IDs. Don’t worry about their credentials, their humanity is their credentials. So, to me, even documentary film has to be storytelling. When one goes to make official facts out of a story, they are making a very exclusive club. They are disconnecting the people, lecturing the people. I always want cinema to be a thinking interaction, I don’t want the audience to disconnect their thinking faculty and be subjected to facts. We used to say of our own separation from Hollywood when we were starting film, we were saying Hollywood is superimposing its power over human beings. It doesn’t want full participation. From beginning to end, it doesn’t activate participation or equal partnership. And I’m saying, nuh-uh, from the outset. How do my films invite participation like Latin Americans and Cubans used to say: “We want an active audience, not passive audiences.” And that’s the key to this whole thing. Let Hollywood put the population of the world to sleep with its novocaine power. I’m not interested in that. Even if someone disagrees with me, I want active participation. When you go that route, all these things become, imperfectly, things you do to make that happen. Each film has its own spirit that I want to find. Even now, the Maroon project I’m doing, I’m trying to find its soul, its life. I don’t want official documentary crap in my life. I prefer boring you to death than submitting to this hip-hop, fast cut, very non-transactional bombardment of audiences. I don’t like to do that to other people.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve said before that Black creatives who infiltrate Hollywood, or what you call the “Lion’s Den” or the “21st century plantation,” hardly ever return from it. Today I think we’re seeing more people who have infiltrated and more or less successfully returned. Do you feel the same way about Hollywood infiltration today?
GERIMA: I’m not sure if it’s “infiltration and coming back.” It depends on what state of mind you come back from that asylum with, and how much those mad people do or do not infect you. A pragmatic person can do a lot with the kinds of resources that machine has, the kind of technology and science that machine has, but it has to be a sober transaction, it’s not even an infiltration. You go to buy what is right for you without destroying yourself piecemeal-y. I think if you build on the side your own territory, where you do what you want to do, it should be very deliberate and clear. For me, infiltrating is one thing, but I would say, do not drown yourself in somebody else’s house, do not disappear in somebody’s plantation. One, know always that it’s not your plantation, and two, build your own plantation, however humble it is. You can go to infiltrate and piecemealy die. The piecemeal death is the most dangerous part. If you infiltrate and take technology? Good. If you take financial possibilities without compromising your creative possibilities? Good. It’s possible, some people do that. There are white people who do that. But nonwhite people are psychologically set in a different situation, they are busy proving themselves to the system that they are valid. And before they know it, they become the age of Sidney Poitier.
He should have built his own company. Instead he built an industry that was not his own, and brought audiences that would not usually go to certain movies. When you look at him in a very positive way, he’s a good lesson to me. Where’s his company now to do what he wants to do? From what I understand, he was completely fashioned to operate in that plantation, and when that plantation had no need for him anymore, he was finished. So this is a lesson for anybody to build your own while you work here. Where you work, I have no problem with. How do I know that this guy who is coming to my house to help me is not a CIA agent? I don’t know. I’m not sure we can tell where anybody works. But, again, piecemeal death is dangerous. Once you start to taste the sugar, you take more and more, and before you know it you’re addicted to sugar. Black people should be the last people to believe in any plantation, because the big American plantation was built by the enslavement of Black people. How do you trust this plantation? Just because you got a job there, just because you got an opportunity to produce a movie? What are you doing with your left hand? This is where people go to die. This is the story of the moth to the flame. But it’s not a criminal act. Build something on your left hand, and work where you have to work, which is not my issue, because I can’t give you a job.

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