July 20, 2010

Teza and the Surreal Cinema Experience

Early last year I read a BBC News article about an Ethiopian film, Haile Gerima's Teza, that won the highest award at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (as well as a few awards in Venice the year prior, but losing the Golden Lion to The Wrestler). Considering my father is from Ethiopia, and considering this film was about the political tumult that took place after he left the country three and a half decades ago, and considering that this story has not been shown on film before, and considering I've never been to Ethiopia (and he hasn't been back), I was, to say the least, a little obsessed with tracking this film down.

Assuming that a full U.S. theatrical release was unlikely, I immediately set a Google Alert for the film so I could find out what was happening with it and when it would be released in any format. In the meantime I also contacted the production company on numerous occasions in the hope of receiving a screener copy to review, but never received a response. It was a shot in the dark, but it was still a shot. About six months ago the alerts started picking up speed, and earlier this year the film finally landed on American shores. Fittingly, it would play in a theater in Washington, D.C., home to Gerima and the largest Ethiopian population in the country.

But would it ever come to Minnesota? Impossible, I thought. It bounced around the East Coast (picking up raves along the way), however, and all of a sudden it began moving westward, arriving in Minneapolis last week (thank you, Minnesota Film Arts!). I gathered my family, including my dad, and we set off to Ethiopia on what truly was a unique cinematic adventure.

As Teza progressed, I had the surreal sensation that I was seeing my family history on film. Not a direct representation of it, but a portrait of the place in which my parents lived at a critical juncture in their lives (and also where my brother was born). It displayed the geography and language and extremely dangerous political climate; ultimately, much of what happened in this film affected my parent's decision to leave the country, first living in Austria (my mother's home) before arriving in California, where I was born.

Putting it together, then, I was literally relating my existence to much of the history portrayed in Teza. When you're cognizant of a connection like that while watching it, cognizant of the fact that changes here or decisions there could have significantly altered your life, well it's a bizarre experience.

Teza is a ravishing epic about Ethiopia's rarely discussed modern history, and while it's not a perfect film (of all things, the acting is a bit wooden at times), I'll never forget the experience of sitting in the theater and watching this film while considering that what was on screen actually led to me sitting in the theater and watching this film.

Have you ever had a similar "meta" experience with a film closely related to your family or your life? Are there movies that capture historical events or social changes that reach you on a deeper level because of your direct (or indirect) connection to them?


  1. Exciting struggle to resume digging through the shadows of film history from the past. Strange experience I had never met. Unfortunately I've never watched to be able to explore the meaning of it for you.

  2. i lov thes film becous thes film hestory my hestore


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