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A headshot of Haile Gerima, who wears glasses and a white tshirt

Observed Online Interviews

A Collective Cinema: A Conversation with Haile Gerima

This piece originally appeared in the 2018 BlackStar Film Festival Catalogue.

by Nehad Khader

Trailblazers of Palestinian cinema have cited his canon as the catalyst to their film career, because Haile Gerima makes images that undercut the violence of power and tells stories that center our dignity.

Over the years, I was invited by Gerima to Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in northwest Washington, D.C, sometimes to listen to two-hour lectures, other times to watch feature-length films projected on a screen in the back of the bookstore. In a city steeped in colonization, Sankofa became a home for me. Gerima would hand me DVDs and ask me to report back my thoughts on the films the next morning. He’s answered my phone calls and given me advice on when to put the camera down and when to keep it rolling. Gerima invests by putting you through an informal yet rigorous education. I’ve returned to his words and lessons when I’m out in the field and when I’m in the editing room.

Last year [in 2017] my colleagues Rashid Zakat, Lendl Tellington and I took a day trip to D.C. to chat with Brother Haile in his bookstore. We spent the better part of a day in his company. We had a one-hour recorded conversation and spent the rest of the time getting one-on-one feedback on our projects, watching footage, critiquing. It was an education that the three of us still reflect on and talk about, and we wanted to share some of it with you. Excerpts below are from our conversation recorded that day.

A Black person peers around a wicker object. In black and white.
Harvest: 3,000 Years (1976). Film still courtesy of Mypheduh Films Inc.

I don’t claim to make perfect films. It’s all imperfect. It will be imperfect. But it’s in the imperfection that you start to reconstruct the real story of our people. In the imperfect work of our people we find pieces of our humanity and so long as they work on those pieces, our community can put them together like a puzzle.

To put a perfect human being [on screen] with no contradiction is, to me, fascist. If you mythologize our heroes—if you say that you can’t be like Assata Shakur, you can’t be like Angela Davis, you can’t be like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X—then you’re destroying us, you’re killing us, you enter Hollywood. That’s a Hollywood treatment of heroes because Hollywood heroes do many things that we can’t do. Get everything that we can’t get. I don’t want a culture that says you can’t. I don’t want that culture that discourages me. So, for me a Black cinema that does not demystify, make human, make accessible to us [our people], to realize our capacity, that I too can make a difference—that to me is a fascist cinema. It discourages Black people’s capacity. What else are we victim of but that? That we can’t become who we are. We can’t be history makers, we can’t tap into the best of who we are. Humans have all kinds of contradictions, and we take the best of what we can from them and then we make our own contradictory life towards changing our world.

A still from the film Teza shows an older Black person in a hat and holding a cane speaking with two small Black children on the opposite side of the frame.
Teza (2008) dir. by Haile Gerima

In that same vein, I appreciate people who try to place themselves in a context of continuity. We damage continuity. That’s how fractured we are—we claim to come up with new things, new slogans. No, it’s not new—it’s a continuum. And if you don’t understand the casualties before you, you will not understand your role in this moment, the moment you are finding yourself or locating yourself in as a filmmaker. It is important for me to know that there were many filmmakers before me. I’m not the first to discover Black film—there are other Black people. Young people should really know that they’re not the first on that scene. It’s a bad knowledge for a Black person to think I was the first anything, and to accept that is to kill every Black effort before him or herself. I hate that—more than racism, I hate that. The first of anything denies the struggle, the human texture of resistance. You can’t begin resisting. You are a descendant of resistance. We forget that barefoot Black people, the day they hit this continent, resisted.

It’s not only in film, either. It’s dangerous politically even for political activists not to understand the lineage of activism and resistance and revolution. A lot of young people think it will be a takeaway from them when they recognize their grandparents. It doesn’t take away from your individual film storytelling, it only strengthens you to say “I am amongst many people.” In political terms, we made a lot of mistakes in the militant era of Black nationalism and Black Power. The fact that we never invoked past resistance and the fact that we thought we were the first to fight racism destroyed a bigger part of the positive aspect of that struggle. Your own resistance becomes fake when you say “I’m new.” You can’t be new. The genomic passage, the passing of seeds of resistance genomically is very big in America—Black people can always say, proudly, there is a history of resistance.

A still from the film SANKOFA by Haile Gerima
Sankofa (1993) dir. by Haile Gerima. Film still courtesy of ARRAY.

I’m not trying to make [young filmmakers] be like me. I’m just saying resist, still. Do not accept things as they are. The same way that I have expectations of my own children I have expectations of young Black people who are in the world of culture and art. In times like this, Black people should know this ship is going down. So what kind of world do they want? We should prepare for a better world. Here’s where the cultural people come in. The filmmakers and the storytellers. Instead of benign storytelling that makes white people comfortable, now is the time [that] we have to unleash Black vision, Black people’s idea of what kind of world Black people want, from an economic, cultural, social state. What do they want? We should reflect that so we should not be slaves of a new radical Whiteness inevitably coming into the scene, left-wing even, who will re-arrange the world because they, too, are tired of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors who brought them to the doorstep of destruction. And so, where do we fit, the colored ones? We’re not even talking about film! We’re talking about where do we fit? Nat Turner! Revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey. When they erupted and rose up they were looking for the other Black people who would give them more oxygen to live as entitled people.

So, you need to hold hands collectively, even with people you can’t agree with. Collectively because your historical placement with them makes you have the same destiny. That absence has hurt me a lot. The L.A. Rebellion was about the collective experiment of communal filmmaking. My disappointment with this so-called L.A. Rebellion of my generation is that from the ashes of our success and failure, I don’t see a collective Black cinema emerge. And that’s tragic for me. Why aren’t you holding hands? You claim I taught you but if I taught you anything it’s the importance of holding hands together, communally existing to survive. You’re individually so divided, you’re psychologically devastated in a world that says you don’t matter, that’s a bad story for me. At a time like this you hold hands more. And even if you feel things are better, well make it even better by holding hands again. Whatever the choice of that generation is, I should see them actively trying to survive in a communal way because cinema is a collective.

In the end, what are we doing here unless we have young Black people behind us to take over? This is our struggle here. You can’t give up. We bring young people [to Sankofa] and show them what needs to be done. And every time somebody comes and says, “You’re so great, I’m happy I met you,” I say “No, work now.” I make them work, get down, work, lift a brick. That’s the culture we need to have. Nothing’s changed about our cinema. We live in a time where a script is given to us written. Black people don’t have to do much work, Native Americans don’t have to do much work. The script is written in front of us. All we have to do is amplify it with the camera, put the light on it. The script is being written by the contradictions of this historical moment that has come from a past contradiction before it. In this moment all we need is imagination to add on this reality.