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Film Focuses on Role of African Expatriots in Development

What's the role of educated Africans in developing the world's poorest continent ?

Thousands of Africans are educated overseas each year. Upon their return, many are disillusioned by the political and economic chaos enveloping their country.

The focus of the new movie by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima is on a young Ethiopian doctor who travels to Germany for training and returns home to work for change in the 1980s.

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The film is called Teza, which means both “childhood” and “morning dew” in Amharic.

Reviewers say it’s about the ideals of expatriates and their hopes for a new beginning for their country.

The main character, Anberber, goes to medical school in Europe, and returns home to an Ethiopia struggling under a Marxist military government that forces young men to join civilian militias.

At first, Anberber is welcomed home because the government wants him to use his skills to improve health care. But he finds himself caught up in the war between the government and other Marxist groups seeking to overturn it. All want the expats to take sides, and all question their loyalty. Meanwhile, poor rural families fail to see the importance of his foreign education.

Coming home

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“Displaced Ethiopians who have returned to their homeland under difficult circumstances are amazingly gallant,” says Gerima. He says the expats in Teza could very well be from any country in Africa.

Ethiopia has experienced civil war and authoritarian rule, as have many other African countries over the past 40 years. Yet thousands of exiles have returned to their homeland under dangerous conditions, says Gerima, and are making major contributions to social change.

He calls his generation idealistic and says one day he hopes to return to the land of his birth [Ethiopia] to promote social change through his movies.

Years in the making

It took Gerima 14 years to bring his story to the screen, in part because of the difficulty getting financial backing.

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“Independent financial institutions in the United States,” says Gerima, “are only interested in exploitative, feel good African Safari movies using the continent as a playground. They are not interested in films that tell the true human story of Africa.”

Gerima was finally able to complete the film with the help of German backers. The movie, his 11th, was filmed in Ethiopia and Germany. It won the award for best screenplay and the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as the highest honor in March at the Pan-African Film Festival (popularly known as Africa’s Oscars).

Not your typical Hollywood story

Getting an Africa tale produced is tough, says the Ethiopian filmmaker: “With a politically backward system in Africa it’s a miracle if your film ever gets off the shelf.”

And, he says the West is slow to appreciate African film.

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“By the time audiences started admiring the work of Senegale's Ousmane Sembene, one of the greatest filmmakers in Africa, he was an old man,” Gerima says.

In addition, “my temperament and attitude is not in sync with mainstream [US] filmmaking,” explains Gerima.

The story teller

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In terms of his own film-making, he says “I tap into my own folkloric [Ethiopian] background for inspiration.” The fourth of 10 children, Gerima grew up in the city of Gondar. His father was a playwright and most of his relatives in Ethiopia are story tellers.

On the other hand, he says the United States basically has been “a laboratory of [my] own evolution as a human being” and as a filmmaker.

An award-winning film professor at Howard University in Washington D.C., Gerima, 63, is deeply involved in the African American community and its culture: “I live in the United States as a black man,” Gerima says.

He owns a café and bookstore called Sankofa across from the university and not far from dozens of Ethiopian restaurants. There, the Ethiopian filmmaker edits and screens movies and invites new talent to perform in front of a Friday audience during “open mic” night.

He says he is still idealistic, like many Ethiopian expatriates, and hopes in some small way that his influence as a film maker and teacher will help bring change to Africa.