Any lesson for the present? Why Haile Gerima’s ‘Teza’(Morning Dew) remains a masterpiece


The Ethiopian film industry has a long history of dating back to the 1960s but its growth is in no way commensurate with its long existence. The first film was staged in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Menelik who was fond of introducing modern European inventions like the telephone, the first train and vehicle to his country.

This happened not long after the Lumiere Brothers in France invented the first motion picture in 1896. The staging of the first movie that had religious content was opposed by the clergy who regarded it as “the work of the devil”. The stone house where the movie was screened was subsequently called “seitan bet” (house of the devil) and is still standing at the crossroad between Churchill Road and Piazza in Addis Ababa.

After the first experiment with the first film at the “house of the devil”, Ethiopians had to wait almost half a century to enjoy seeing a motion picture in the modern sense of the term. The 1960s were particularly important for the development of the modern cinema in Ethiopia with the production of the first all-Ethiopian movie called “Hirut abatwa manew” (Hirut, who is her father?).

Since then a number of films with different forms and contents were staged at different times. The 1970s saw the production of movies like “Guma” by Greek filmmaker Papatakis in whose name an award is nominated. This was followed by other films with varying levels of quality and success.

What we may call the movie boom in Ethiopia is not more than two decades old starting from the 1990s. This was the period of a real explosion in Ethiopian cinema. Hundreds of films were produced, dozens of movie companies came into being and ultra modern cinema halls were built following the new economic opportunity for private enterprise.

Ethiopian cinema thus became an established commercial enterprise that employs investors, writers, actors, directors and many people engaged in cinema related activities. The boom in Ethiopian cinema has also produced notable films, actors and writers.

If include Haile Gerima, the exiled Ethiopian director, writer and producer as part of this late boom of Ethiopian cinema, it is quite obvious that he stands head and shoulders above all the local filmmakers combined. This is not an exaggeration born of personal admiration. This is a statement of tangible facts. There are in fact notable young and veteran Ethiopian filmmakers here at home like Solomon Bekele Weya (Aster) but judged by their artistic maturity, talent, education and dedication, Haile Gerima is taller than anyone of them.

The comparison is no meant to belittle the contributions made by start-ups and amateur filmmakers who are engaged in the craft not out of love, passion or knowledge but in the hope of making money because Ethiopian cinema is wrongly perceived as money making machine, comparable to Nigeria’s Nollywood and Indian Bollywood but this is an illusion of course.

To come back to Haile Gerima, it would be relevant here to focus on his most famous 2008 movie known as Teza, a 140-minute feature drama based on a screenplay by Haile Gerima and also directed by him. Teza is the story of an Ethiopian intellectual (Anberber) who lived in Germany and returns to his country following the 1974 Revolution. He is full of hope and idealism and eager to use his medical profession to cure his people from various diseases.

He is a revolutionary who is soon disillusioned by the Revolution that turned anti-intellectual and victimizes his closest comrades including Tesfaye who is killed by a group of assassins while working at a research center in Addis Ababa. This was the tipping point that filled the cup for Anberber who is faced with stark choices both at home and in Germany.

He returns to Germany only to be ostracized as a government spy while he is facing racism in the hands of right wing, xenophobic group of white youngsters who chased and attacked him and finally threw him from the first story of a building. Anberber is made an invalid and returns to his country as a fast-aging, angry and disillusioned intellectual.

He does not fit well in the traditional community in his home village and is only partially saved by falling in love with a local woman who is herself the victim of a failed marriage. She kills her child because her husband marries another woman in the village and finally falls for Anberber to whom she gives hope of living another life.

Teza is of course a story about the fate of intellectuals after the Revolution that turned against the very people who gave their lives to it. It is a tragic story that set intellectuals against one another and made them victims of the military dictatorship under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Although Haile Gerima was not living in Ethiopia during that period, he has effectively captured the mood, the language, the psychology and ideology of the period, the illusions and disillusionment of the characters. Although physically removed from the tragic drama, Teza is also the story of the Ethiopia of his generation and that of himself, because he was emotionally and psychologically involved in it.

Many critics have written more professionally about the technical aspect of the film which they described simply as aesthetically brilliant and poetic. Teza is set in Germany and Ethiopia and made in Amharic, English and German translations. As one intellectual put it, Teza is not only about Ethiopia. It is also about African intellectuals and examines their displacement at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.

Teza is also an African film as it examines the dilemmas of African intellectuals in the Diaspora. It is also a film of African Diaspora experience which is generally tragic but also highly instructive. Soon after the screening of “Teza”, a film critic wrote in the Hollywood Review magazine brief two or three paragraph long statements about Haile Gerima’s 140 minutes-long film which stands out as a masterpiece of modern Ethiopian filmmaking.

The reviewer said that “Teza” was a low-budget film without indicating the well-known fact that Haile Gerima’s movies are thought-provoking and unconventional and ground-king productions that never enjoyed the attention and less the support of big studios in the United States or in Western Europe with few exceptions. It is important to remember that Teza was made partially through European Union (EU) funding.

It has taken Hile Gerima long years of hard work, patience and enduring commitment to the kind of movies he is fond of making by remaining faithful to his ideas. Haile Gerima is not a blockbuster movie maker who manipulates the violent instinct of the audience. He rather deals with the human condition in tragic situations of African history.

As one film critic noted at the time of its appearance, “the film is dedicated to all black people killed because they were black and to all Ethiopians killed by Ethiopia.” Haile Gerima has made some eleven films among which Sankofa (1993) Bush Mama 91979), Ashes and Embers (1982), Harvest 3000 Years (1976, Child of Resistance, and Adwa stand out as masterpieces of African cinema.

What lesson does Teza convey to the present or maybe to the future? It is in a way a vocal condemnation and exposure of the evils of Ethiopian politics that has always ended in tragedy as conflicting interests among the intellectuals who bring their erroneous ideas to the people and incite them to mutual killings. Teza is not only a masterpiece of filmmaking.

It is also a classic of Ethiopian and African cinema, a warning against the violent instincts inherent in political elites whose ideas have so far brought no salvation but only tragedy to the people who have nothing to do with political fantasies and tragic ideologies. The signs of such tragedies are present all over Africa, including Ethiopia. It is up to the intellectual to reexamine their roles and work for the salvation and not the tragedy of Africans.

Twenty years after its appearance, Teza’s message is still relevant to present day Africa, whose Diaspora elites are still caught between foreign ideologies and traditional cultures and do not seem to have drawn the lessons as they are still unable to reclaim their cultures and remain caught into the political fantasies they bring with them with their Western education.

The times have changed but the dilemma remains the same. Such is Teza’s relevance for the present and even for the future. With Teza, Ethiopian cinema has grown out of its infancy and mediocrity o embrace depth, esthetics, topicality, seriousness and even prophesy. Compare it with “Hirut, who is her Father” and you will see what is meant with cinematic maturity and even vinematic revolution.


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