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Welcome to the 21st Century, #HaileGerima!

Several weeks ago, sensei stormed into his office, and demanded our attention.

“Shorty!” he barked at me. (I promise, he knows my name.) “And, where’s the rest of them?”

I buried my head and smiled sheepishly at the stranger in front of me. In the middle of a meeting, the Angry Man had to stop the presses and be heard.

“Seriously,” he said, his expression stoney as ever, “What is up with this #blacklivesmatter hashtag?

This summer, I had the privilege of helping Haile Gerima enter the 21st century.

sankofa posterBest known for his 1993 film SANKOFA, the decidedly independent writer, director and producer is, perhaps, the most famous man that no one has ever heard of. My challenge and that of others, who joined me on this bold experiment was to promote a legendary figure in black cinema, who has also spent a lifetime avoiding commercial success.

A professor at Howard University, since 1975, his career spans more than 4 decades and over a dozen productions. Prominent filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese and Ava Duvernay have praised him as a “master” of his craft, and he has claimed prizes at festivals, from Berlin to Burkina Faso. But, until recently, most of the world barely knew his name, let alone how to pronounce it (HI-LAY GUH-REEMA).

In an effort to raise production funds for his next film, YETUT LIJ, the 69-year-old storyteller agreed to embark on a strange, new journey: his first, crowd-sourced fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.

Though, Haile is no stranger to community support, fundraising online is another beast, entirely.

Much of the branding and self-promotion required to start trends and make it to the top of news feeds feels superfluous to him, anathema to his work as a filmmaker. Unsurprisingly, he was skeptical about the power of a digital movement.

“Hey, Hashtag!” he’d call out, hand up, palm facing me. “You’re living in a fantasy world.

postcard-4inx6in-h-frontAs an independent black filmmaker, Haile is all too aware of his reality. Born and raised in Ethiopia, his films, including the Cannes Classic HARVEST 3000 YEARS, BUSH MAMA, and ASHES & EMBERS are all plucked from his own personal and cultural experiences. Each an admittedly imperfect attempt for him to work out his “schizophrenic life in America.”

A graduate of the film school at the University of California, Los Angeles, Haile cut his teeth, during the 1970s, alongside other filmmakers of color, who were resistant to the Hollywood studio and used their limited resources to make films that reflected their communities and the circumstances of the time.

Considered a founding member of this “LA Rebellion” movement, the popular term causes Haile to bristle.

For him, filmmaking is neither fashion, nor profession, it’s a tooth and nail fight to tell his story. His personal films have often come at the expense of several years and substantial profit.

“There’s no other way but struggling, forging ahead to do the film.” he told Shadow & Act in a July 2013 interview. “And for me it is not only wanting to tell your story, but to tell it your way that’s part of the struggle … I don’t want my accent, my temperament, my narrative style to be compromised.”

In 1993, when Haile debuted SANKOFA, the story of a black American fashion model who gets transported to the past as a slave, he received a best film nod in Europe, and returned to the U.S. with little distribution opportunities. 

Taking matters into their own hands, he, his wife and filmmaking partner Shirikiana Aina, as well as his sister and financial manager, Selome, began traveling from city to city. They raised funds and stretched what little they had to self-distribute the film and spread awareness via word of mouth.

That too was a bold experiment.

Yet, the film defied odds. It screened to packed theaters across the country and consistently drew crowds, for weeks on end, demonstrating a real hunger for stories, by and about the African Diaspora.

Headlines in the year after SANKOFA’s release hint at the energy that fueled the film’s grassroots energy:

“‘Labor of Love”

“Rallying Around ‘Sankofa'”

“Haile Gerima, Menace II the Status Quo”

“Do your homework!” he would charge his audiences. “If you want people to see Sankofa, hijack the airwaves. Call the mayor. Have him proclaim Sankofa Day.”

Today, at least 5 cities in America officially commemorate the occasion.

In the Akan language of Ghana, the word “Sankofa” translates to “return and fetch it” or remember your past, in order to move forward. Its significance is not lost on me and the others, who are supporting Haile’s latest effort.

This Indiegogo campaign has also managed to defy the odds, if not Haile’s own expectations, thanks in large part to the high profile and social media prowess of filmmaker, Ava Duvernay.



On June 29th the SELMA director and founder of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) delivered an impassioned and impromptu sermon on Twitter about #hailegerima.

She encouraged others “to support 1 of our best directors” and get behind the new campaign to support his next film. “He shouldn’t have to ask.” she tweeted to her more than 100,000 followers, “But he is. I hope we answer.”

Since then, some notable names, influenced or affected by Haile’s work have heeded Ava’s call to action, like Bradford Young, Greg Carr, Euzhan Palcy, Kasi Lemmons, Danny Glover, and dream hampton. Others have simply stepped up to learn more about the man or share how they felt the first time they saw SANKOFA.

Despite falling short of Haile’s initial goal, he has managed to raise over $60,000, and there is still enough time to make an even bigger difference.

Yet, regardless of the final tally or what comes of his new, online brand, suffice it to say that Haile Gerima will still find a way to produce his film and tell his story. What made SANKOFA possible is the same dogged will that still drives him today: By any means necessary.

This much was clear to me that day in his office, as I tried to cram his whole history into a 140 characters. Sensei came in suddenly and spoke with such urgency, that I understood:

“Black lives have always mattered. They don’t need a hashtag to be worth something.”

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Saaret Yoseph is a storyteller and multimedia producer, based in Washington, D.C. She received a master’s degree in Communication, Cultural and Technology at Georgetown University, where she began Red Line D.C., the independent documentary, now featured on the Google Cultural Institute’s Street Art Project. A 2015 Docs in Progress fellow, she is currently in preproduction for a transnational documentary about the Ethiopian Diaspora.


Photo credits
Cover Image: Melke; Graphic Flyers: Leah Takele

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