September 2, 2008 / 1:02 PM / 10 years ago

Ethiopian film explores nation's recent violent past

VENICE (Reuters) - A powerful new film chronicles the life of an Ethiopian intellectual who flees his country during the Marxist “red terror” in the 1980s, only to be viciously attacked in Germany by racist youths.

Actor Aaron Arefe takes a picture of photographers during a photocall at the Venice Film Festival September 2, 2008. Arefe stars in the movie "Teza" by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima which is presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Anberber, the central character, returns to his homeland longing for peace, but life with his mother in a small village is disrupted by armed factions dragging boys away to fight and by prying locals wary of a man they consider to be an outsider.

“Teza,” by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, is one of 21 movies in competition at the Venice film festival, and warm applause after a press screening suggested it would be a contender for prizes at the closing ceremony on Saturday.

The story jumps between multiple timelines, but in each Anberber struggles to fit in, be it in his native Ethiopia or in exile in Germany.

Gerima said “Teza” reflected his own experiences, and was based on a recurring dream.

“The dream is basically about intellectual displacement,” he told reporters in Venice on Tuesday.

“When I translated my dream it was about being displaced, unable to live up to your peasant life, your peasant family and at the same time reconcile (that) with your modern world.”

Anberber seeks refuge in memories of his happy childhood, something U.S.-based Gerima said he also did whenever he returned to Ethiopia which he described as “a nightmare for me.”

“Like Anberber in the film I like to drown (in) the past.”

“I go to Ethiopia and I dream my past but the present is so powerful it continues to hijack my sentimental journey to my childhood. I think it’s the idea that you want your childhood world to come back, I think that is universal.”

“In Africa the luxury to remember memory is hijacked by daily violence, either silent violence or obvious violence.”


Some of the most striking scenes are set in the 1980s, with Ethiopia in the grip of purges, show trials, executions and mob lynchings under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who seized power in 1974 after Emperor Haile Selassie’s overthrow.

Giant portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin form the backdrop to the violence and fear, and Anberber’s revolutionary fervor quickly turns to disillusionment as he realizes what the regime means for himself and his country.

Actor Abeye Tedla, who plays Anberber’s best friend and fellow idealist, recalled some of the horrors of that time which he lived through as a child.

“I’ve seen a few bodies when I was going to school and coming back. It wasn’t uncommon.”

“As you were walking by there would be a guard standing there so nobody removes the body. And if you look too closely ... the person would say ‘Do you know this person?’ And I mean literally you could get shot if the person suspected you.”

He praised Gerima for what he said was a balanced portrayal of those times in Ethiopia.

“It (the story) just looks at what happens when people stop thinking constructively and start thinking destructively.”

Editing by Matthew Jones

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