In «Bandung Conference (1955), the shattered dream of a New International Economic Order» we talked about the 1974 UN Resolution on the New International Economic Order (NIEO) which the newly born G-7 confronted trying to break the political authority of the Third World Bloc.
By that time, 1975, in Ethiopia, the situation, as in the rest of Africa, was unbearable. «Harvest: 3,000 Years«, a jewel of the best African cinema, showed the life of slavery and exploitation by a colonial system in Ethiopia, the international order that should be preserved.
Its director, Haile Gerima, was a leading member of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.
The context: The fall of Emperor Haile Selassie
Eighteen months after Ethiopians toppled Emperor Haile Selassie (1974) – directly supported by the UK and the US -, the nation found itself in a difficult time of political and social upheaval that led it down a path of economic disarray, repression, fear, and disillusionment about the future.
Although the new military government seemed intent on ending the feudalism and exploitation of large agricultural landowners that characterized the old regime, the result was an increase in violence and chaos throughout the nation.
In this context, with the revolution for Eritrean independence, other problems in the country were viewed with increasing anxiety by both Ethiopian citizens and foreign diplomats. And especially by diplomats from the United States, the country that until now had been the strongest supporter of the Ethiopian regime.
Thousands of schoolchildren who have nothing to do and other people roamed the streets of Addis Ababa begging for alms. The food distribution system from the countryside to the city no longer worked, so rationing rules had been imposed.
The film: "Harvest, 3,000 years" (1975)
Far away from Addis Abeba’s war and power games, in rural Ethiopia’s feudal era, Harvest 3000 Years portrays the hardships of a rural family as they worked as enslaved people under an oppressive landowner backed by the national army.
Haile Gerima was inspired to make a film in his mother tongue, Amharic, after seeing Ousmane Sembène’s Borom Sarret (1963). He shows the extent of their struggles with close-up footage of their work milking cows, ploughing fields, and attending to a seemingly never-ending list of duties at the callous landowner’s whim.
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.
Amongst atmospheric, documentary-like early sequences of cattle driving and food preparation, a narrative of power imbalance emerges that of a wealthy landowner and his serfs, workers who till his land for little pay and passively endure his vituperation.
The only challenge to his authority comes from two characters who refuse these societal norms: Kebebe, a local peasant, dispossessed landowner considered the local madman (as he «doesn’t understand anything»); and Beletech, a young girl, stifled by expectations of gender.
The landlord is a demanding tyrant, ill at ease with the precariousness of his existence (he suffers frequent nightmares). He’s waited on hand and foot by Kentu, a servant Gerima shows to be as subservient as a dog (there are numerous scenes where he’s seen running after his master’s carriage). It would be comedic if it weren’t historically accurate.
Cui prodest? The main allegation of the film
Behind the main characters, are three organizations that maintain this system of slavery and cruel exploitation: the colonial powers, the new elite, and the church.
The army prevented by brutal violence any attempt of protest or uprising of the rural population against the exploitation they suffer, against the established order -whose primary beneficiaries were the colonialist Western nations-. The «mad» Kebebe tells a young man who works for the landowner:
The church supports the system. Right before entering the religious services, the landowner mistreats his servant at the doors of the temple, and violently demands that he take off his master’s shoes and give him the bible. Kebebe in response to the local priest’s request that he stop talking «nonsense», -otherwise God will punish him– and his offer to pray for him to get back on the righteous path exclaims:
Ethiopia and West Africa: Fifty years later, 2022
When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 (makes clear who supports him), he was lauded as a regional peacemaker.
Now, he remains in power against the backdrop of a protracted civil war that, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destabilize the broader Horn of Africa region. In November 2020, Abiy ordered a military offensive in the northern Tigray region.
A year later, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than two million people from their homes, fueled famine, and resulted in a wave of atrocities. For months, Abiy denied that civilians were being harmed or Eritrean soldiers had joined the fighting. But reports from international observers and human rights groups both claim false.
By many estimates, thousands have been killed in the fighting, and there are reports of razed refugee camps, looting, sexual violence, massacres, and extrajudicial killings. Many more have fled to Sudan, in what the United Nations has called the worst exodus of refugees from Ethiopia seen in two decades.
Do the poor impoverish themselves?
Meanwhile, those who pull the strings, and the new actors who want to pull them now, continue to abandon the people. Kebebe, the «mad» man in the film was right. And for his insolence, he pays a high price.
At one point in the film, he cries out to a group of villagers that only education will set them free, and therefore they will never receive education from the government, and he then exclaims:
As title of this post claims, «Harvest, 3000 Years«, is one of the great African films, which I recommend watching (the pace of the film, marked by the daily life of the community, demands a certain patience at a time when speed and headlines are the daily reality), and that shows that unfortunately the situation remains the same as it was in 1975 in the East African front.
And so we come to another stage of our Journey to the East…