Ethiopia | Teza: Making Peace with the War Within

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Aaron Arefe in Haile Gerima's “Teza”

By Mohamed Keita

Teza” is the latest release of renowned Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima—best known for his acclaimed 1993 epic of African resistance to slavery, “Sankofa.” An interpretation of the journey and transformative experiences of young Africans educated in the West, Teza is the most autobiographical film of Gerima, a Howard University film professor who affectionately calls his campus learning center a piece of “liberated territory.” For him, cinema is the most potent “destabilizing mass media weapon,” because of its power to impart social and cultural values.

Although partly based on Gerima’s experiences in America as a Peace Corps-educated Ethiopian student in the 1960s, the Teza screenplay drew little interest in the U.S. and secured funding only in Germany after 14 long years.

Teza represents a bold statement of defiance to a Hollywood establishment with limited appetite for meaningful films told from unique and diverse perspectives.

The circumstances of Teza may be particular to Ethiopia—the film is in Amharic with English subtitles—but the moral conflicts brought out by the performances of the cast are timeless and universal.

Gerima’s main protagonist, a Germany-educated doctor called Anberber (expertly played by Ethiopian-American actor Aaron Arefe), is a broken and disoriented man returning to the village of his childhood on the shores of Ethiopia’s northwestern Lake Tana. Like the irreverent girl drifting in the brutal chaos of Haiti’s dictatorship in Raoul Peck’s Man By The Shore, Anberber staggers in a world he barely recognizes. The prairies and hills, his former childhood playgrounds, are now contested battlefields where boys play deadly games of hide and seek within the chaos of an ugly war.

“It was my childhood they killed today,” he says, identifying with one of the children tragically plucked by the war. Time and space between generations overlap when Anberber stands on “Mussolini Mountain,” a hilltop obelisk erected after the war in which his own father lost his life.

A useless intellectual in this pastoral world, Anberber is haunted by pain and nightmares from a more recent past. Gerima skillfully intersperses sequences of these memories. We follow Anberber from his golden student days in Germany in the 1970s to his return to Ethiopia and a visit to Germany in the 1980s—experiences that ultimately push him to his breaking point. With these memories, Gerima revisits two of the most chaotic decades of Ethiopian contemporary history—a period marked by destructive politics, brutal repression, and mass displacement.

Gerima’s cinematography depicts the scenic and misty lakeside landscape of northwest Ethiopia in rich sepia tones and sets a melancholic mood with guttural, reverberating hymns. Gerima says he drew from a “goldmine of cultural expression” for his “imperfect attempt” at “recreating the tonality” of the crackling fire around which children sit to challenge each other to Enkolkalesh (a riddle game). The film actually draws its title from one of these riddles—a grand metaphor for themes of transience of time and dislocation.

As Anberber steps into this world at war with itself, a gripping suspense and sense of unpredictability and powerlessness take hold. Gerima fills silence with memorable visual symbolism. For instance, Gerima deliberately zooms in on the blank, mask-like faces of ruthless soldiers who seize Anberber one night. Their eyes pop out of their sockets, they maintain a fixed, unnatural gaze, and their body language seems grotesque, robotic and inhuman. These conscripts could readily march into Fela Kuti’s 1977 song satirizing militarism, Zombie. But they are also victims in a world gone mad.