SANKOFA (1993, U.S./Ghana, 124 min.), directed by Haile Gerima; screenplay by Haile Gerima; produced by Shirikiana Aina and Gerima; cinematography by Augustin Cubano; edited by Gerima and Aina; music by David J. White; production design by Kerry Marshall; with Kofi Ghanaba (Sankofa), Oyafunmike Ogunlano (Mona) Alexandra Duah (Nunu), Nick Medley (Joe), Mtabaruka (Shango), Afemo Omilami (Noble Ali), Reginald Carter (Father Raphael),  Mzuri (Lucy).

 

 

THE STORY:

 

            Sankofa is an Akan word that means, "We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today." Written, directed and produced by Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima, Sankofa is a powerful film about Maafa--the African holocaust. Done from an African/African-American perspective, this story is a vastly different one from the generally distorted representations of African people that Hollywood gives us. This revolutionary feature film connects enslaved black people with their African past and culture. It empowers Black people on the screen by showing how African peoples desire for freedommade them resist, fight back, and conspire against their enslavers, overseers and collective past through the vision on Mona, who visits her ancestral experience on a new world plantation as Shola. We share the life she endures as a slave and experiences her growing consciousness and transformation.

                                                            --Mypheduh Films

 

THE MAKING OF THE FILM:

 

            To complete their magnificent movie on slavery--which was filmed at the former slave castles in Cape Coast, Ghana--Shirikiana Aina and her husband, Haile Gerima, pleaded for foundation grants, bartered for plane tickets, lodging and crew, and charged supplies on their credit cards.  They finished the film, Sankofa (which means "going backward to move forward" in Akan, a Ghanaian dialect), last year for less than $1 million. That challenge ended up being the easy part. After endless showings at film festivals around the world, the producers couldn't get a distribution deal and were in debt. So Aina and Gerima, who are also professors at Howard University in Washington, D.C., distributed the film themselves, which to date has grossed more than $670,000. [Note:  by the end of 1997 the film had grossed close to $3 million.]  Here's how they did it:

 

             MAKING THE MOVIE :  "We applied for every film grant from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation. We then approached the Ghanaian government about filming in their country. They allowed us to do it in exchange for lifetime rights to show the film in Ghana. Also, the Fespaco Film Festival in Burkina Faso gave us film equipment and personnel."      SEEKING DISTRIBUTION: "Film festival after festival, the results were the same. No one would pick up our film. We then arranged private screenings for all the major studios to see the film, and they all told us the same thing: 'we don't know how to market your film.'

 

            "RISING TO THE TOP ":  Out of desperation, we organized a screening for the community people in Washington, D.C. One of the attendees, Acklyn Lynch, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, then helped us throw a fund-raising premiere at the Cineplex Odeon Jenifer theater in Washington, which raised $20,000 and allowed the film to run there for 11 weeks. We then made copies of the film and now continue to rent theaters across the country. In August, Sankofa will be running in Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago and Atlanta."

 

                                                --Deborah Gregory, Essence, Sept. 1994

 

 

FILM AND FILMMAKER:

 

From: Black Film Review, 1994, Vol. 8 Issue 13

 

 

A RETURN TO THE PAST

 

            Earlier this year, Sankofa won a jury prize for cinematography at the Festival of Pan African Cinema and Television.  For the movie, Gerima used a narrative style that occasionally borrows from the documentary genre. Tony Stafford, film executive, has said that Gerima's work "smash(es) the tenets of polite naturalism... [and] eschews traditional genre distinctions between fiction and documentary." Ironically, given the enduring popularity of Hollywood's New-Jack-Boyz-N-the-City-Menacing-Society genre, which uses a pseudo-documentary filmic style, movies like Sankofa are at risk of being overshadowed.

 

            As much as the Video Soul X Generation may hate to admit it, history has taught that there is much to be learned from the past. Not just the glory years everyone likes to romanticize about. You know, the noble days when everyone and his neighbor was a king or queen. Or the radical 60s when everybody had a shotgun, a beret, and a leather jacket, and marched in the streets with Huey. I mean those in between years. Those years, those hundreds of thousands of years that fell somewhere between the Nile and Newton. It's important to learn from these years as well, and not just for what they can teach about the past, but also for what they can teach about the present.

 

            One might consider these points while viewing Haile Gerima's latest feature length film, Sankofa. The theme of returning home is a recurrent one in Gerima's films, particularly this one. "Sankofa" is an Akan word that means "to return to the past in order to go forward." Told from the perspective of a Eurocentric Black woman condemned to re-live slavery, the film is a story about self awareness and a journey home in search of pan-African consciousness.

 

            Early in the film it becomes clear that Gerima, who is Ethiopian, is employing a familiar genre--the slave drama--to subvert conventional assumptions about identity, race, and class within our own society.  Gerima, who wrote, directed, and co-produced Sankofa with Shirikiana Aina, agrees the film is less about slavery, per se, than a commentary on contemporary sociopolitical dynamics. He says he wanted to use “slavery as a landscape" to bring into sharper focus the issues African Americans need to address today. "I see the contemporary echoes of the past," he says. "If you look at America as a plantation, then you can codify the different classes and interest groups within the society. You find overseers, head slaves, you find plantation owners in a very advanced, sophisticated way. This is why I felt I had to do the film. I was not interested in the past because it was exotic or brutal. I was very interested in its relationship to the present.

 

            "I think the role of the artist," Gerima says, "is to interpret those realities--in a very, very sensitive and unique way--that daily re-visit a certain society." Gerima charges that Hollywood industry movies, particularly ghetto gangster films, "de-focus our mental consciousness, "make Blacks feel hopeless, and do little more than show "accurately how someone got brutally killed." Industry-backed films, he says, fail to offer artistic interpretations that would "[invigorate] society and make people talk and think like they never have before."

 

            Gerima says he made Sankofa to raise consciousness; the movie isn't a couch potato's silver screen T.V. substitute. "I am not a court jester; I'm not out to entertain people," says Gerima. "I don't degrade myself by telling you I made Sankofa to entertain you. I made it to make you think." Gerima characterizes Hollywood as being more interested in bread and chocolate issues than bread and butter ones--that is, more interested in profits than people--and he criticizes the industry for being detrimental to Black struggles for freedom. Black audiences, he says, cannot rely on the industry to provide them with empowering images designed to raise consciousness. Gerima points out that most Hollywood movies, whose primary purpose is to make profits by entertaining, depress consciousness. "The motivating factor," he says, "determines the type of films they are. The fact that those industry films are done for commercial reasons automatically dismisses any possibility of arriving at a higher consciousness as a result of witnessing [them]."

 

            It's no revelation that those with the greatest economic interest  determine what scripts get produced and distributed, and who gets to make them. Robert Staples has estimated that Blacks, and other people of color, buy 38 percent of all movie tickets and that 97 percent of entertainment profits go to European-Americans. In a 1991 study, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found that, "No Black executive makes final decisions in the motion picture or television industry, [and] only a handful of Afro-Americans hold executive positions with film studios or television networks."

 

            Gerima also charges that Hollywood suppresses indigenous debate within Black communities and he indicts the industry for selecting cultural representatives who don't challenge the status quo. These Hollywood approved screenwriters and directors, he says, make movies that are ultimately marketed as "the Black reality."

 

            "I think the industry backs young people who are not the real intellectual, cultural, artistic products of the Black community. The Black community has always had a conflict, historically, as I observe it, [where] white America intervenes and recruits their own guards. But there have always been Black Americans in [the arts] that are nurtured by the community. And the industry is incapable of allowing those artistic, intellectual sensitivities emerge to help the society to transform. What they do is pre-empt those local, nurtured African Americans and bring in their own version. They do the same with Black leadership and they do in the artistic world."

 

            The films these movie marionettes make, Gerima says, perpetuate the same Tom n' Jemima stereotypes Hollywood has produced in the past. The only difference today is Black directors have been hired to add a little masala to the mix. Gerima says that, "Industry-backed African-American films are nothing but tour guides for the non-resident Black bourgeoisie and white Americans to visit the `terrible' Black community."

 

            Clearly, Gerima intends for Sankofa to expand the boundaries of Black representation in ways that include more diverse, realistic, and empowering images and, in turn, enable Black audiences to see themselves in new ways that are divorced from dominant images.

 

            Gerima reminds one of a street corner minister preaching the gospel to passersby and possible converts. His arguments are not without merit. But without a congregation, a regular pulpit, and, lord knows, a collection plate or two--in short, without the institutional support needed to spread his message to a wider audience--his converts will be few. Gerima himself knows this. Therefore it should not be surprising that he advocates the re-creation of an independent Black film industry.  For although Gerima doesn't believe Hollywood-made movies can challenge us to re-think power relations, he says he doesn't believe the industry and "the system" are omnipotent. Rather, he places the responsibility for recuperating Black images where he says it belongs: in the Black community.

 

            Some critics have argued that it is necessary to have both independent Black cinema and Hollywood insiders, but Gerima says industry-made movies will forever be compromised in ways that betray our history and identities. The only alternative, he says, is to create an alternative film culture which allows us to reconstruct our image of ourselves and our relationships to one another. This alternative film culture, Gerima says, could help us to transform ourselves and re-work power relations within the society.

 

            Not that we didn't have an independent film industry before. Recalling

an earlier period, Gerima points out that African Americans allowed Hollywood to suck the life out of the Black independent film industry of the 1920s/1930s. By this time Black theater owners and filmmakers, notably Oscar Micheaux, had built a successful industry that was fueled and supported by Black actors, businessmen, newspaper critics, and audiences. But once Hollywood realized there was a growing audience of Black moviegoers, particularly in Northern industrial cities, it started including Black actors as extras and supporting characters in its films.  Segregation laws were relaxed somewhat, thus allowing Blacks to attend theaters that had previously catered only to whites. Audiences and actors alike abandoned this independent cinema to participate in the dominant film culture.

 

            Now the situation is reversed. Hollywood rediscovered Black people in the mid-1980s, and since then it has built up a sizable Black audience that will turn out for any Spike Joint or ghetto vehicle released.  Gerima is advocating that contemporary independent filmmakers "recapture" this Black audience that has been nursed on Hollywood's ocular junk food, and nourish it with a new film culture.

 

            Before we can accomplish this, he says, we must divest ourselves from the cinematic standards that have been set by Hollywood. As movie audiences we have grown accustomed to the dazzling, and expensive, film audiences we have grown accustomed to the dazzling, and expensive, film sets and special effects that come with million dollar, big studio productions. Similarly, we have bought into the star crazy mentality which uses big name individuals to draw ticket buyers to the box office. Gerima says these are among the superfluous frills we must abandon if we are to develop an alternative African American film culture. "We have to build up independent institutions, however modest and small they are," Gerima says, "and build them--forever--without any doubt that they are legitimate. We could build an amazing culture of (film) production outside the existing system if we wisely invest in each others' dreams and visions."

 

            Specifically, what Gerima is calling for is a low budget film culture that is informed by minimalism. For example, during the making of Sankofa, when he realized additional money would not be forthcoming, Gerima couldn't pay his film crew the wages he wanted, couldn't employ certain color dissolves and special effects, and an entire section of the film had to be cut. He also had enough money to make only one print of the film. Despite these sacrifices, Sankofa, and other low budget films, demonstrate that it is possible to abandon the slick, glossy Hollywood aesthetic in favor of one that speaks more directly to the needs of Black people.

 

African Americans would embrace such a film culture, Gerima says, if mobilized by our cultural and political leadership. "When a film comes out (critics) are there to review the film. Very sad, because to me (the critics') role should always be on a continual basis. People who write about film should always be there, alert, activating the community--even in the absence of films. It is the making of a movie, creating the conditions to have more movies being made within the Black community, that makes the community be activated. Similarly, organizations like the NAACP, instead of begging Hollywood, could do fundraising for Black artists in the Black community. Instead of marching, they could put their money in Black films."

 

            For Gerima, Sankofa--which he considers to be "a turning point and an amalgamation" of everything he has done to date--represents his own consciousness raising experiences and "homecoming." The son of an insurgent Ethiopian playwright, Gerima did a stint in the Peace Corps, which he calls his period of ,(volunteer colonialism," before coming to the U.S. in the late 1960s. He says he was influenced by the radical, militant African American culture he found when he arrived, and was deeply influenced by the Black arts movement that was afoot at the time.  "It was the best time, historically, for me to have come to America," he says. "The Black movement engulfed me and hi-jacked me out of my submissive colonial position. Out of that I developed [the theme  of] `the return,' the 'journey.' So, all of my films are about returning. I am deeply indebted to this period of Black American history."

 

            He carried this radical sentiment into UCLA, where, as a film student, he began researching and writing Sankofa. Throughout the 70s and early 80s Gerima wrote (and rewrote) the script, and traveled to the southern U.S., Venezuela, Martinique, Cuba, and Jamaica to learn about American slavery. In 1985 he began raising money to produce the film, which he completed last year.

 

            Thus far, Sankofa--Gerima's eighth feature length film--has been shown in Germany, Italy, Burkina Faso, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. By the end of this year, Gerima plans to show it in Ghana, South Africa, Tunisia and Los Angeles (again.) Hopefully, when another print of the movie is made, it will circulate to more cities and audiences. Until then, Gerima is entering Sankofa in selected film festivals around the world and is distributing the movie to local markets himself. Not surprisingly, all the major U.S. film distribution companies have labeled Sankofa a "Black history" or "Black culture" movie--which they apparently consider to be stigmas--and have refused to distribute it.

 

            Interestingly, white Americans in the Hollywood film industry establishment appear to be alone in this assessment of Sankofa. White audiences in Europe have appreciated the film and found it to be relevant to their lives. For example, German audiences have discovered that African American slavery is a fitting metaphor for other institutions and patterns of behavior based on oppression. Because of Sankofa's strong themes of identity, resistance, and struggle, Germans are using the film as a point of departure for debates on ethnic

relations there.

 

            Finally, and perhaps more important to Gerima, people of African descent also are claiming the film. Gerima was moved to tears as he recounted stories of how Black people were embracing the film. For example, after a screening of Sankofa in Ouagadougou [Burkina Faso], several Black audience members sent him a taped message telling him how much the movie meant to them. A preview screening of a draft version of the movie elicited a similar response from a predominantly Black audience at Syracuse University. And Gerima's film crew told him, after he apologized for not being able to pay them more than he did, that simply working on Sankofa and learning more about African and African American history was payment enough.

 

            Gerima says the approximate 20 years it took to make Sankofa, with the resulting struggle and sacrifice, would not have been worth it, "if there hadn't been a community of people who said, "Okay, you made this film. You brought it here and from here we will take it." Things like this make you say, "I'll make my next film, too. I'll regroup." What makes you want to make another film is the way [your films] materialize at the end. The feedback, the embracing is what repairs you."

 

E. Assata Wright is a free lance journalist in Washington, D.C.

 

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