Dir-scr: Haile Gerima. Ethiopia-Germany-France. 2008. 140mins.
Haile Gerima ambitiously attempts to put his native country’s tragic recent history into context in the sprawling Teza, which follows an Ethiopian intellectual through exile in Germany and return to his home village during the turbulent early years of the Marxist regime. Taking place over three decades, this may be modestly-budgeted but it is also handsome, intelligent and watchable. Teza is an obvious festival choice, but it could also find a receptive audience in the African diaspora and select arthouse - this is ostensibly about Ethiopia, but it tells the sad story of much of the continent, then and now.
By far the most effective sequences in Teza are those which take place in 1990, in the confines of a remote, mudhut village where damaged protagonist Anberber (Arefe) returns to the arms of his joyous, elderly mother. The viewer watches, dismayed, as Anberber witnesses how things are at home post-coup as the Marxist regime cannibalises itself: government militias stalk the town, snatching the village’s young boys as military recruits. Many flee to live in a nearby cave. Ethiopia, Anberber explains, is a country at war - ‘endless war’ - where parents are forced to hide their children.
While village life goes on as it seemingly always has, Anberber is at a distance: obviously not well, mentally or physically (he has lost a leg but says he cannot remember how), he confuses the present with his past in some of Teza’s most memorable visual sequences. The village chiefs begin to believe he has been cursed and a tribal ritual prompts a flashback to Cologne in the 1970s.
One of Teza’s weaknesses is the wide scope of Gerima’s ambition: he isn’t content to just deal with the huge problems of his troubled homeland, but also opens up to the not-insignificant issues of racism overseas and the responsibilities of parenthood, at home and abroad. The brutal randomness of a key plot development is confident and works well, but some of the other veins Gerima exposes are left open.
In Cologne, Anberber and his intellectual friends - particularly his best friend Tesfaye (Abvetedla) - become fervent socialists, living for the day the hated Emperor is overthrown and they can return to Ethiopia, where, as medical scientists and members of the intelligentsia, they can work to eradicate the diseases which plague the country. But as socialism gives way to Marxism and madness sets in, the grim reality of post-colonial Africa in the 1980s deals a fatal blow to Anberber’s idealism in sequences which could have been set in almost any African nation of that time.
Back in the village, however, the gentle sway of life begins to bring Anberber back to life as he puts the pieces of his past together.
Although Teza can stray wildly, the sweet seductiveness of Anberber’s home as captured by Gerima and his team cannot be underestimated. Production values are certainly of a higher quality than is normal and the sound is particularly effective. Performances are natural and seem to be from non-professionals in the rural setting. Ambitious it may be, but Teza is a memorable, if raw, film, and marks a significant step forward for African cinema.
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