Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp.
HARVEST: 3000 YEARS
Sowers of maize and bullets
- Michael D. Quam
For most readers, Ethiopia is a distant and exotic land, which until recently appeared through National Geographic, et al., to be barely emerging from the middle ages under the benevolent tutelage of its diminutive but regal patriarch, Emperor Haile Selassie. Now a film made by a native Ethiopian has stripped away this public relations facade to reveal the peasant roots of the revolutionary turmoil that has shaken Ethiopia for the last six years. A brief and necessarily simplified description of the ancien regime and its revolutionary successors may be useful as a context for the film review which follows.
For hundreds of years the people of the Abyssinian highlands (central and northern Ethiopia) lived in a society and political economy that can be broadly characterized as feudal. This mode of production assured some security of tenure to the individual peasant family while also demanding major portions of the family's produce for the maintenance of the secular ruling class and the religious hierarchy. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of conquests by these northerners brought large tracts of land and alien peoples in the south and east under the control of a centralizing monarchy in Addis Ababa. Through massive land expropriation and theft, the structure of political and economic domination in these new areas rapidly took the form of an oppressive and sometimes rapacious landlord-tenant system.
Following the unsuccessful colonization attempt by the Italian fascists, Haile Selassie moved to further centralize and bureaucratize political power and to stimulate some economic modernization through the encouragement of foreign capital investment and the welcoming of foreign technicians and businessmen. He also greatly expanded the size and destructive power of the military with the assistance of major aid from the United States. These efforts transformed Ethiopian society by creating a much more elaborate class structure. A smell but eventually militant urban working class as well as a rural proletariat (created by consolidation and mechanization of some agricultural production) appeared. The bureaucracies fostered by Haile Selassie gave rise to an "old guard" bureaucratic bourgeoisie, ineffectual, corrupt, and loyal to the throne. Alongside this parasitic class was a younger frustrated petty bourgeoisie, divided among the civil service, the lower levels of the modern economy, and the educational system, whose students and teachers were the base for an increasingly radical and courageous intelligentsia.
In early 1974, severe economic conditions and the regime's callousness and ineptitude brought to a head the frustrations of the urban proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and the lower ranks of the military. With no real political organization, these groups found themselves in a haphazard and de facto alliance as the vanguard of a popular movement to oust the ancien regime. For obvious reasons, it was essential that the military be brought into the opposition, although some factions of the radical intelligentsia predicted that the young Turks in uniform would not be faithful revolutionary partners.
Although the rebellious military continued to consolidate its power through a harsh and sometimes bloody elimination of the nobility and the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, including senior military officers, the fears of the critics seemed belied by the radical land reform measures imposed by the new military leaders. These measures, coupled with other "socialist" appropriations of urban housing and of major economic institutions, lent the new regime the appearance of true revolutionaries. The elimination of the old guard and the establishment of the new state-run enterprises also opened up opportunities for career advancement for many members of the petty bourgeoisie. These new rulers were no friends of the proletariat, however. They immediately moved to suppress labor organizations and to crush all proletarian agitation. When students fanned out into the countryside to assist in a nationwide program implementing the land reform, they quickly discovered that the military rulers would deal brutally with any effective attempts to mobilize the peasants into political organizations. Disillusioned elements within the popular movement renewed their call for the election of a popular government. But by this time the precarious alliance of classes was fragmented by its own internal contradictions. The radicals were forced underground, where they formed the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party. The EPRP published newspapers, pamphlets, and proclamations to keep the ideological struggle alive. They also armed themselves and answered the terrorist tactics of the regime.
The junta was besieged on all sides by rebellions for regional autonomy, by at least one serious insurrection led by underground and exiled remnants of the ancien regime, and by the revolutionary opposition in the cities. At this point, the military junta went through a final series of internal convulsions and massive murderous reprisals against its largely unarmed opponents. The end result in late 1977 was the clear emergence of a military dictator, one Lt. Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu, and the decimation of any immediate hopes for an elected popular government. Since that time, Haile Mariam Mengistu has ruled with savagery and single-mindedness in a regime that has produced neither freedom nor prosperity for the Ethiopian people. No doubt the seeds of revolutionary opposition still exist, dormant in the blood-drenched soil, awaiting the next conflagration.
HARVEST: 3000 YEARS was filmed in Ethiopia just as the popular movement of 1974 was dawning. It is an eloquent portrayal of the last days of the old order.
In 1964, I went to Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer, one of those young idealistic "B.A. generalists" who was given the opportunity to spend two years among non-Western people in exchange for our obvious U.S. superiority in all things intellectual, technical, and organizational. I was twenty-four but very naive; I was an American child of the 50s. Growing up in the 50s was similar to surviving a stroke. You are still alive but your faculties are at least temporarily impaired. I do not know if I ever "helped" a single Ethiopian, but during my two years in Ethiopia I began to recover the use of some of my senses. What I saw and heard and smelled and felt in that most beautiful and puzzling place literally changed my mind. Although I absorbed a great deal of Ethiopian culture, I did not understand the structure of Ethiopian society. Nevertheless, I came back to the States in 1966 convinced that the terrorism of U.S. greed was destroying whole cultures and the people who were the bearers of non-acquisitive cultures. I joined the protests against U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia, and like so many of us in the 60s, I began to learn about capitalism.
Watching Haile Gerima's film HARVEST: 3000 YEARS, I was swept by memories — the sights and sounds of domestic life, of cattle and chickens, of cooking fires and smoky huts, of rocky arid fields and back-breaking toil, and especially the sounds of Amharic being spoken, with its special complexities and dramatic intonation. All of these stimuli are what I remember best. Haile Gerima's evocation of the concrete sensual reality of Ethiopia gives his film a compelling authenticity. But my memory was also jolted by the characteristic features of Ethiopian social life as portrayed in HARVEST. There the relations between lord and peasant or master and servant are both symbolized and realized in the continuous berating and casual beating of lower-class people; the bowing and scraping, the begging and flattering, the apparent passivity of the downtrodden; the clash of conflicting world views, between the kinship-based consciousness of the peasants and the ideology of domination embodied in the repressive laws and technology of the modernizing elites for whom the state is ultimate reality; and, finally, the latent violence that in the last decade has broken through all cultural constraints on its expression. These too I remember, but with the added measure of comprehension that I once lacked. In Haile Gerima's film, I have at last seen the truth, with all its contradictions, about a place that meant so much to me.
HARVEST opens with sounds of an Ethiopian morning, of animals moving about, birds chirping, the grumbling of people just waking up, the church bells call to morning prayer, chanting, and drums. Almost immediately this calm is punctuated by images of social hierarchy, as the browbeaten servant attends to the wishes of his master, bringing the washbasin, helping him on with his coat, trailing along behind the lord carrying his possessions, stooping to remove the lord's shoes so that he may enter the church.
The plot of this political ethnography begins to emerge when we are introduced to Kebebe, an itinerant musician who is living in a culvert. Kebebe is a revolutionary, a man who no longer has any allegiance to or stake in the established system. He is a veteran of the patriotic war against the Italians. While he was away at war, the landlord, whom we have already met, was able through legal chicanery to seize Kebebe's land. Since then he has been jailed several times for speaking out against the landlords and is considered by many to be slightly mad. At one point the landlord threatens to "get him shock treatment."
In Kebebe the power of unrepressed anger and imagination has produced a radical vision, a vision of a social order in which wealth will be held and controlled by the producers of that wealth. He tells Berehun, the young peasant,
Out of his own bitter experience he has acquired a gut level understanding of internal colonialism and imperialism:
Kebebe is no technocratic socialist either. He harbors no fascination for machine technology or money economy:
Instead, his ideas and indeed his very images are those of an agrarian communist. Addressing a crowd of young men in the marketplace, he says of the ruling class,
If Kebebe, the peasant revolutionary, has a blind spot, it is in his advocacy of education as a solution at least to personal oppression. He tells Berehun,
Quoting an educated friend, Kebebe assures Berehun,
In this aspect of Kebebe's character, Haile Gerima shows us the ambivalence and pervasive mystification of modernization ideology. For is it not the educated who have created the modern world, a world of exploitation, of domination, of total administration. Admittedly the secondary schools and universities in the Third World have often been the locus of radical criticism and political action. Indeed, in Ethiopia the wisdom, the courage, and the supreme sacrifice of the radical intelligentsia, especially the students, during the past two decades has been heroic. These same institutions, however, have also produced in many Third World struggles the new class of indigenous oppressors who, through the instrument of the state, administer and benefit from the more subtle and faceless structures of neocolonialism and neo-imperialism. In my judgment and experience, these men (for this class is overwhelmingly male) with brown faces too often display no affection or respect for the life of the village and the fields. They are stunted people, cut off from their cultural roots by indoctrination in the modern megalomania of bureaucratic hierarchy, administrative control, and economic efficiency.
Although he has gone through a long period of formal Western education, Haile Gerima has retained a deep sense of the authenticity of traditional life. His portrayal of the peasant family is sensitive and unsentimental. The critical motifs are presented and reiterated through Kebebe's songs and the dreams of a peasant girl, Berehun's sister, Beletech. The imagery is both traditional and explosive. We see long shots of the immensity of the land and the loneliness and insignificance of the peasant farmer in the midst of these rocky fields, while in close-ups the actual struggle with the soil and with the ox-drawn plow is vividly presented. In Beletech's recurrent dream, she sees her family harnessed to the plow, being driven like oxen. But in the final version, before her death, the family rises up and throws off the harnesses. Early in the film Kebebe sings,
The lurking sense of repression, violence, and revolt is the emotional tone of the entire film. Kebebe is angry with Kentu, the personal servant of the landlord, because of his bootlicking mentality. At one point Kentu, gingerly seating himself in the lord's special chair on the veranda, has a moment of near insight:
And what is the payoff for this submission to and identification with oppression:
This simple-minded collaboration does not convey the whole truth, though. In one of the film's most effective scenes, the servant laborers come very near to rushing the lord as he dozes in his "throne" overseeing their work. Their faces are transformed into masks of murderous intent, masks that reveal rather than hide the emotional and political truth of their lives. No words are spoken, no moves are actually made, but the tension is almost unbearable.
It is not surprising that the theme of escape is also prominent. Escape is what Berehun hopes to achieve through going to school, a decision that his mother and grandmother bitterly criticize as irresponsible and as an abandonment of the family. In the late feudal — early capitalist structure of Ethiopian society shown in this film, however, the old ways are powerless in their own defense and have in fact become themselves oppressive. Berehun's real education begins when he realizes that the internal contradictions both in modern education and in traditional culture must be transcended before oppression can be conquered. It takes the deaths of both his sister, Beletech, and his mentor, Kebebe, to plant the seeds of revolt.
Gerima's portrayal of Beletech is especially noteworthy. It is Beletech who dreams of peasant revolt, who sees in the submissive role of women an analogy with the larger problem of peasant submissiveness, and who, even as a girl, rejects this role:
In the midst of this interior soliloquy, Beletech, the cow herder, is called to rescue one of her cattle from a stream swollen by floodwaters. She races into the water and is swept away, fulfilling the inadvertent prophecy of the landlord, who earlier had threatened,
When the servant, Kentu, comes to the mourning family, he brings from his master the demand that they skin the dead cow and bring in the skin. The lord will not even provide for a decent funeral for his faithful servant who gave her life trying to protect his property. Berehun replies,
The harvest of 3000 years is death. Death for the peasants who give their lives to enhance and protect the ruling class' property and, sadly, for some of the early revolutionaries. The rainy season floods have taken Beletech's life; following the rains is the harvest season. When the landlord comes to collect the harvest from the peasant sharecropper, he demands it all! Beletech's father pleads,
The impotence of this begging and the greed of the landlord have driven Berehun, the peasant son, to his breaking point. But it is mad Kebebe who acts.
Striding into the scene, Kebebe challenges the master:
Unable to contain his need for vengeance any longer, Kebebe leaps upon the landlord and beats him to death. The drama has not reached its tragic denouement, however. The servants and the other peasants who have witnessed the action immediately call for the police and begin pursuing Kebebe. This act of individual revenge and compensation does not trigger any broad scale revolutionary consciousness or support. Instead, Kebebe is hounded into his culvert where he hangs himself rather than surrender to the authorities.
The deaths of Beletech and Kebebe seem to act as a release on Berehun, freeing him from the mystification and powerlessness that he has felt. He does not follow the road of progress through education that Kebebe so naively advocated. In the final scene, he jumps on the back of a passing truck, his last words to us being,
Then in a departure from the film's prevailing style the character of Berehun is engulfed in the faces and words of the Ethiopian working class:
As must be apparent from my description, I was deeply affected by this film. Haile Gerima's insistence on showing both the impediments and the potentialities of revolutionary action give his film a profound authenticity. Several technical problems should be noted: the print that I saw seemed washed out, slightly overexposed in many of the outdoor scenes. Also, the pace of the film is very slow, which may be a deliberate stylistic attempt to create a feeling of social and political lethargy, but it could be detrimental with some audiences.
In a recent interview, Haile Gerima revealed that HARVEST was originally conceived as a silent film, and much of the power in the film is in its sharp visual images and its dramatic silences. These techniques are far more effectively didactic than any script could be. The filmmaker's choice of the visual over the oral indicates a sophisticated awareness of the special strengths of his art form. HARVEST was filmed in Haile Gerima's home village, and the characters are derived from his own experiences:
"Kebebe, for instance, is an amalgam of three or four people I had known including my father; the landlord is a composite of many people that I knew personally, so they're more dramatic characters than documentary types."
Of special note is the performance of Gebru Kassa, who plays Kebebe. His portrayal is masterful, filled with the warmth of humor and anger. Gebru Kassa is, in fact, a former teacher of Haile Gerima and has experienced political torture in the jails of Addis Ababa.
HARVEST would no doubt be very effective with an indigenous Ethiopian audience. But, of course, it has been banned, a contradiction of which Haile Gerima is acutely aware. The hostility of the Ethiopian authorities is predictable, for HARVEST is a deeply radical film. In its opposition to all ruling classes and its implicit demand for a decentralized and humane socialism, it is a clear threat to the ascendancy of the militarized state with its dogma of centralization and monopoly control over both the means of production and the means of violence. The plot, the characters, the vivid images from the natural world all combine to create a peasant consciousness and a demand for revolutionary change that is rooted in the experiences of the producers. HARVEST: 3000 YEARS is a picture of class struggle, seen from the bottom up.
Unifilm, 419 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, distributes HARVEST: 3000 YEARS.