'Teza' takes top honors at African film fest

'Nothing But the Truth' comes in second at FESPACO

OUAGADOUGOU, Africa -- A film set in Ethiopia about a bloodthirsty regime under which political dissidents and village children alike were ruthlessly killed has won best movie award at Africa's top film festival.

"Teza," a feature by award-winning director Haile Gerima set during Mengistu Haile Mariam's 1974-91 rule, won the top prize late Saturday at this year's 40th pan-African FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso.

Judges praised the film, 14 years in the making, for its strength, depth and poetry conveying the dashed hopes of a returning intellectual elite. Stunning village vistas and shoulder-dancing amid ululations in bars capture an expressive, vital Ethiopian culture.

"The message of the film is peace," Selome Gerima, associate producer of the film and sister of the United States-based, Ethiopian-born director, told Reuters while beaming and clutching her Etalon d'Or de Yennenga (Golden Stallion of Yennenga), Africa's equivalent of an Oscar.

The plot follows a series of horrific experiences endured by hero Anberber, who trains as a medical research scientist in Europe. On his return to Ethiopia full of hope and eager to contribute to his country, he and his friends are violently and cruelly rejected at home and again back in Germany.

Shot in the Gerimas' hometown of Gondar in northwest Ethiopia, the village cast was drawn from locals during three months of filming, many of whom had experienced the brutalities of the regime firsthand.

"Some had experienced the Red Terror. One mother started crying bitterly because it reminded her of when they took her daughter," Selome Gerima told Reuters during the festival, referring to the violent purges that marked Mengistu's rule.

Several entries among this year's competition have raised a critical voice and urged change on the continent.

In the South African film "Nothing But the Truth," which won second prize, director and lead actor John Kani plays a librarian denied promotion, and who believes post-apartheid freedom's dividends have not been realized. In real life Kani's brother was shot dead in a church by police while reading a poem at the grave of a nine-year old girl killed during an anti-apartheid riot.