The cinema of Sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by the continent’s Francophone west; a region that has benefited from a strong film culture and a long history of French institutional funding. Look across to the east and south (South Africa itself excluded), and the offerings become sparse to non-existent. And yet, the best African film I have seen emerges not from Mali or Senegal, but Ethiopia: Haile Gerima’s 1976 masterpiece Harvest: 3000 Years (Mirt Sost Shi Amit).
Although a giant of African cinema, Gerima made his first films in the US, radical works about the struggle of African-Americans against an oppressive system. Harvest: 3000 Years was the first film he made in his native Ethiopia; a slow-burning saga of post-colonial exploitation and rebellion that is at once free-flowing and carefully controlled.
Amongst atmospheric, documentary-like early sequences of cattle driving and food preparation, a narrative of power imbalance emerges: that of a rich land-owner and his serfs, workers who till his land for little pay and passively endure his vituperation. The only challenge to his authority comes from a local peasant who yells insults from the road, claiming to have been wrongfully dispossessed of his land.
The trajectory in this Marxist parable inches ever-closer to revolution, but it is telling that the most explicit moment of group resistance occurs in a dream sequence – not a dream of the oppressed, but of the land-owner himself; his subconscious perfectly aware that the inequality from which he profits cannot last.
Happily, there is a great deal going on in Harvest: 3000 Years that doesn’t directly serve its central narrative. A few moments of startling audiovisual experimentation aside, Gerima films the everyday life of the villagers in a style that recalls that of De Sica or early Pasolini: children playing idly; stories told over dinner; the mundane repetition of farm work. The story he tells is only ever secondary to the world he immerses viewers in. Times of oppression may come and go, but – as the film’s title suggests – some things remain constant: the necessities of life must be fulfilled, and the harvest must be gathered.
You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.