As my week of African cinema draws to a close, one final documentary, which for a change touches on a successful instance of 19th century resistance to the European coloniser. It was made by the Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, much of whose work has been made in the United States, as a leading proponent of what has come to be known as the “LA Rebellion” of African and African-American filmmakers working and studying at UCLA.
This is essentially a documentary about an important battle, about the way that battle shaped a country and, to a certain degree, a continent, but it’s also at least in part about who gets to tell these stories. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its resistance to typical documentary conventions. Instead of the authoritative figure of a scholar or critic seen as a talking head and lecturing the audience, instead filmmaker Haile Gerima gives these words to a variety of Ethiopians. Sure one of them could be an academic (he’s seated at home and wearing a suit), but others appear to be people in the street, farmers or peasants, from all walks of life, though there are no on-screen titles so it’s unclear.
The point is: this story belongs to everyone in Ethiopia, because it’s a story of resistance against the tide of European colonisers forcibly trying to annexe vast swathes of Africa during the 19th century. This is a story of a battle fought by the Ethiopian leader Menelik II against the Italians in 1896, who like the rest of Europe’s powers were involved in carving up Africa for profit (leading to the so-called “scramble for Africa”). Ethiopia’s successful resistance meant that it was one of the very few places on the continent not colonised at that time (it succumbed briefly later during WW2), giving it a totemic place in the burgeoning Pan-African movement.
Gerima’s film therefore narrates his film through these people who know parts of the historical tale and context, but also through images (artworks, carvings, other visual representations of the Battle of Adwa and the events surrounding it) and, vitally, through folk songs. There are many layers of interpretation swirling around her, overlaid on one another, not complicating the history but rather rendering it richer and perhaps better suggesting its importance.
Director Haile Gerima ፕሮፌሰር ኃይሌ ገሪማ; Cinematographer Augustin Cubano; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 8 August 2019.