Eye For Film >> Movies >> Teza (2008) Film Review
Reviewed by: Ali Hazzah
Ethiopian director Haile Gerima’s new film symbolises the collective experience of many African intellectuals and professionals who fled to the West for political asylum or economic opportunity.
Some encountered racism. But many could no longer go back, or did not want to. Others did, only to find that what they had left behind bore scant resemblance to the land they idyllically remembered. They returned to the West. And in so doing, each became a person suspended between two cultures.
Teza is about such as a man, one who tries to resolve his anomie by reclaiming that which is authentic within him.
Praised as a masterpiece by expatriate Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, Teza won the Tanit d’Or at the 2008 Carthage Film Festival, and that year's Special Jury Prize and OSELLA for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. The film also scooped up the Licorne d'Or at Amiens.
The action takes place during the 20 or so years encompassing Emperor Haïlé Sélassie’s 1974 overthrow, the subsequent rise of a bloodthirsty dictator named Mengistu, and the long, genocidal civil war that ensued. The film’s protagonist, Anberber (Aaron Arefe/Mengistu Zelalem), is a young man from a simple mountain village overlooking Lake T’ana, who leaves Ethiopia to study medicine in Germany, and returns a political idealist.
Teza is not a shallow, pretentious film that lesser directors might try to gussy up with obfuscation. The film is entrancingly watchable. Still, it does take some initial work to follow the plot.
Gerima kicks it off with a hallucinatory sequence that contains anticipatory clues to solving Teza’s multidimensional structure. We see images of a man (Anberber’s father, as we later surmise) in traditional garb, holding a torch, walking through an undefined place. Another man (whom we eventually realise is Anberber) lies in an emergency room, somewhere, in bandages.
Memories from his childhood slip in and out of his traumatised brain. As if witnessing a dream, we watch a group of boys crouched in a circle by a lake, playing enkokilish, an ancient Ethiopian riddle game. A primordial sun rises above them; the soft ground is wet with morning dew (teza, in Amharic).
Some of the questions posed during the game foretell important plot developments; and enkokilish itself is a metaphor for the film’s narrative arc, which is non-linear, predicated on the notion of a puzzle, and stitched together by an interior monologue. This is the dream weaving of a severely wounded consciousness trying to reconstitute itself by retrieving fragments of the past. It can be disorientating for viewers, to be sure, but never gratuitously so.
The rest of the movie unfolds from the temporal standpoint of Anberber's final return in 1990 to his village. There are three extended flashbacks: the early Seventies period in Cologne; the early Eighties in Addis Abebba; and the late Eighties in Leipzig. The final segment, where past becomes present, takes place in real time.
During the Cologne period, Anberber makes friends with another med school Ethiopian student, Tesfaye (Abeye Tedla), and Gabi, his German girlfriend (Veronika Avraham, the only actor here with prior professional experience). He also falls in with a circle of expat friends, including yet another Ethiopian, Abdul (Wuhib Bayu), who is later violently killed, and meets a woman of African descent, Cassandra (Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, in real life a German/Austrian activist on social issues). They becomes lovers. This segment sets the stage for Anberber’s political awakening following much discussion on competing interpretations of Marxist doctrine.
The second segment takes place following the coup by Mengistu and his followers that ends Sélassie's 44-year reign. Anberber rejoins Tesfaye (who has abandoned Gabi and their mixed race son) in a clinic in Addis Abebba to "eradicate all the bacteria" in their homeland. But Anberber's experience in Marxist Ethiopia turns into a nightmare. A bathroom faucet in his hotel room drips all night, driving him mad. He yearns to return to his village, to visit his mother, "Tata" Tadfe (Takelech Beyenne), and his older brother, Ayalew (Nebiyu Baye), but cannot.
During the Leipzig period, Anberber locates Gabi and Tesfaye's son in order to explain Tesfaye’s fate. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, he is viciously attacked and we now understand how he ended up in an emergency room.
Upon returning home, Anberber is in his late forties. He looks much older, and can barely speak. Civil war still rages on. Anberber is literally a broken man. Sleeping in a hut in his ancestral village, he wakes up screaming from time to time. The village church elders attempt to cleanse his spirit him with holy water; it does not work.
Anberber later pays a visit, under the cover of darkness, to a once sacred cave where young men are hiding from the insurrectionist factions who would send them to fight against the government. It is the same cave that, decades earlier, people had used to hide from the Italian fascists who occupied Ethiopia during part of WWII, and killed his father with poison gas.
When Anberber saves a despised outcast, Azanu (Teje Tesfahun, who in the real world is an Ethiopian singer), from rape by Ayalew, it is the beginning of his salvation. She, too, is damaged goods, for her past as a sexual servant "thigh-girl". By the end of the film, Anberber creates with her a reason to reclaim their destroyed identities. They are, after all, children of the dragon of pre-Christian Ethiopian mythology who once lived in the cave and protected their beautiful village. It sounds hokey, but works here.
Written in 1994, it took the fiercely independent Gerima (who is best known for Sankofa) 10 years to obtain the funding necessary to start shooting in Ethiopia. This took place over an eight-week period. When the money ran out, he was forced to spend another two years securing additional funding to complete the German segments.
In addition to its profoundly moving subject matter, the movie features a haunting soundtrack (Vijay Iyer and Jorga Mesfin) and eidetic camera work (Mario Masini), both of which perfectly sustain Gerima’s dream narrative style.
Teza will appeal to a crossover audience and, more importantly, any sophisticated moviegoer with a hunger for outstanding film.
See it.Reviewed on: 19 Feb 2009