It's rare that an independent film manages to survive and thrive outside the realm of major Hollywood distribution companies. Yet that's exactly what has happened with Sankofa, a bold low-budget slave epic currently making its way across North America, city by city, drawing huge and enthusiastic crowds wherever it plays.
The film's creator, Haile Gerima, is a one-man band who raised the money to make the film from a variety of independent sources, then wrote, produced, directed, and edited it, finally seeing it through to completion two years ago. Accord-ingly, he protects and nurtures it as a father might his child, traveling to each new town and dropping in on screenings to shake the hands of folks who plunked down their hard-earned money to vindicate his efforts.
He was in Dallas two weekends ago when Sankofa opened at the United Artists 8 near Red Bird Mall; if you went that weekend, you probably saw Gerima, an unassuming thirtysomething man with toffee-colored skin, deep-set eyes, and a playful smile, introducing himself to viewers as they exited the theater and exclaiming, "Thank you for coming out today, brother. Bless you, sister--your support means so much to me. I'm so happy you all could make it."
In other words, Sankofa offers a Webster's-precise definition of the phrase "labor of love," which implies both positive and negative qualities. On the positive side, you know going into the picture that you're about to see a work of intense creative commitment--the product of a man with big dreams who refused to let small-minded naysayers break his spirit. You know that when a filmmaker works within this minuscule a budget and tells a poetic, disturbing, mysterious story while working directly from his subconscious that you're going to see startling images, energetic performances by unknown actors, and formal devices so odd that the notion of even attempting them in a feature film would petrify most mainstream filmmakers.
On the minus side, it's impossible to take risks this substantial without courting pretension and enduring embarrassment. For everything that works in Sankofa, something else misfires--often so badly that it takes several scenes for the filmmaker to regain his momentum. For long stretches, Gerima gets so deeply immersed in his obsessions that it doesn't occur to him to let anybody else in; he's speaking in cinematic tongues, and because there's no one else around to interpret--to systematically and patiently explain to us what he meant to say--the results can be alienating.
The setup feels almost like the beginning of a radically tinged Twilight Zone episode. A well-to-do model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) wanders off a fashion shoot at a castle on the coast of Ghana in Africa and deep into the structure, where she finds ancient dungeons that once housed slaves before they were shipped to plantations in the New World. For reasons that are wisely never explained, she is transported back in time and realizes that she herself is a slave.
Now known as Shola, our heroine endures the dreaded Middle Passage to North America, which is estimated to have killed more than 10 million Africans, and is instantly immersed in the slave culture of a southern plantation. She discovers that she has friends, including an earthy matriarch named Nunu (the wise-eyed Ghanian actress Alexandra Duah), and a strapping, Caribbean-reared revolutionary-in-the-making named Shango (played with slightly kooky ferocity by Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka, whose thick patois is subtitled for American audiences). She also has enemies (the white masters), and acquaintances who fall somewhere in between (specifically Joe, the mulatto overseer who is beholden to his white masters and despised by the black slaves he cruelly disciplines).
The filmmaker drops us right into the middle of this strange new world without much explanation (the journey is expressed in a series of provocative dissolves and tracking shots through African dungeons and sun-drenched American vegetable fields, suggesting the transition between a dream state and an awakening). He assumes we'll find our geographic and emotional bearings intuitively.
It isn't easy, though, because like many visionary statements, Sankofa is more of a sensory experience than a simple story; it's more interested in mood, texture, and time-space dislocations than in telling a straightforward melodramatic narrative. Which is probably good, because when you strip away Gerima's eerie and sometimes perverse cinematic brush strokes, the script is a variation on the same politically conscious slave melodrama material we've seen many times before, in venues as diverse as Gillo Pontecorvo's 1969 Marlon Brando vehicle Burn, the TV miniseries "Roots," blaxploitation flicks, even Robert Townsend's parody segment in Hollywood Shuffle.
Instead, Gerima plays up the environment in which his characters live, love, plot, and suffer. With a rigor that sometimes verges on fanaticism, he begins most of his major setpieces the same way: by tracking slowly in toward his characters, showing us their surroundings in long, unbroken camera movements, lingering over crops, trees, hillsides, and buildings while we hear dialogue being spoken offscreen, then finally revealing the speakers. And he ends on a similar note, tracking away from his people and reemphasizing the world around them, reminding us of just how powerfully they're bonded to the land they're forced to work. Over and over again, he emphasizes physical details at the expense of plot points--the crack of a whip on a punished slave's back, the anguish on Shola's face as she's sodomized by her master, the glint of sunlight on the machete carried by the rebellious Shango as he sneaks up on one of his tormentors--which lends familiar situations a fresh and sometimes hallucinatory aura.
It goes without saying that some viewers will be confused and even irritated by Gerima's stylistic conceits, and with good reason. This material is so inherently upsetting and involving that his determination not to embrace the time-honored conventions of slavery melodrama sometimes implies that he's trying to deny the base nature of his material. (At the screening I saw, a key scene near the end depicting a horribly mistreated slave striking back at one of the whites who abused her drew delighted applause from many audience members--not just because the violence was morally justified, but also because the filmmaker had finally granted them some avenue of emotional release.)
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It's impossible to call Sankofa a great film, because no movie this willfully strange, hypnotic, and daring could succeed on every level. It's a given that many viewers will be unable to get past Gerima's affectations and will simply give up on a movie that consistently denies them the chance for easy, one-note emotional involvement. But even when the film stumbles, it's never less than fascinating.
Perhaps more compelling than the film itself is the thought of just what Gerima, whose intensely personal vision has reaped acclaim from both critics and audiences, will do as a follow-up. His work is certainly cut out for him. Sankofa is unlike any movie in theaters right now. And for a die-hard indie filmmaker like Gerima, that's more than half the battle.
Sankofa. Mypheduh Films. Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Mutabaruka, Alexandra Duah. Script and direction by Haile Gerima. Now showing at the United Artists South 8.