Sunday, July 04, 2010

Winta, the film; Bishop Scott retires from COA

Saturday evening, July 3, 2010, colleague and friend, Bishop Scott retired from a 40 year teaching career in psychology at the College of Alameda. It was a gala affair; his family and friends, some going back to elementary school in Sacramento, where he grew up, were present. I met Bishop’s big sister, cousins, nieces, wife and children. The dinner was great and the chocolate cake and cheese cake looked good to someone who resisted (smile).

We played Bishop BINGO where the cards were filled with Bishop Trivia we had to find people who could answer questions, such as: Who knew Bishop before he grew a beard? Who has seen Bishop skate? Who has taken Bishop’s courses?

The woman I met who could answer that question graduated from COA at the age of 75. She said she received all As in her psychology courses. At 84 now, she works at Berkeley Head Start. We mingled and then ate and roasted Bishop (sounds like he was dinner (smile), listened to live jazz music and later on danced to deejays spinning and scratching. At the end of the evening, as things wound down, the karaoke microphone came out. The evening wasn’t too cold as we walked to our cars carrying balloons from the tables. It was a wonderful evening!

When I walked into Hs Lordships and up the stairs where Bishop's party was underway, colleague, Danny's company performing one of a few pieces, the check-in table was filled with plagues and honors Bishop had received over the years. Bishop's career began in 1970 at Laney College, where he worked as a counselor for veterans and women's reentry programs. Since 1982 he has been at the College of Alameda, where he has taught a variety of psychology classes, African American history, basic skills and Tai Chi Chuan.

Bishop was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Sacramento, California. After receiving a BA in psychology from San Francisco State at a time when ethnic and black studies departments were being established throughout the country in 1967 he was drafted into the army to fight in the Vietnam War. He received an assignment instead to Furth, Germany where he spent 18 months counseling servicemen who were experiencing emotional problems, while he also studied German at the University of Erlangen. When he returned home, Bishop received a master's degree in Counseling Psychology from Cal State East Bay (at that time CS Hayward) in 1978. He continued advanced studies at Sonoma State.

From 1978 to 1984 Bishop spent summers studying at the University of Durango, Mexico, nearly completing a masters in Spanish. In 1981, he taught English for a year at the university while teaching English and basic science to fifth and sixth graders in Mexico. It was there he met Maria, his wife of 26 years now, with whom he has a son, Ahkin.

The language in the Scott home is Spanish. Bishops other children, whom he said last night, taught him how to be a father are: Bantu Tyree Scott and Brandie Bradford. He is also known as Daddy to Melanie Howard and Khe-Kefaab MenNefer (a.k.a. Trevor Graham).

Bishop has been active as a mentor for students and new faculty, faculty advisor for COA's Social Welfare Club and Psi Beta Club. Many of those mentees now teaching at the COA and elsewhere such as UC Berkeley were also present.

He holds a black belt in the hybrid American martial art of Kajukenbo, and has been a practitioner of Tai Chi Chuan since 1976.

Earlier Saturday I attended a screening of Winta, a new film directed by Mesfin Sinke, an Eritrean film shot in Tigrinya (and some English) with English subtitles. The screening was at Samuel Merritt University Bechtel Room and at the 2 PM show most of those in the audience were members of the cast and their families. Mesfin Sinke, the producer, writer, director and principle on camera & audio was so nervous he introduces the film entirely in Tigrinya and forgets to translate for the non-Tigrinya speaking audience (smile).

“Winta” was shot in two locations, with two directors. Issayas Tsegay, the Asmara director, with an Asmara cast: Winta's mother: Ghenet Alem, Winta's brother “Tadeos” portrayed by actor: Ghidey Gebratatiyos and “Fortuna,” Winta's school friend back home, portrayed by actress: Samrawit Ghebray. The lovely Homib Abraha who portrays Winta was on location in Asmara and Oakland (smile). Tsegay's cast was professional, he a highly regarded director, while at home, Sinke's cast was for the most part amateur, but his principle editor, Feven Debas, actress and filmmaker (Art Academy), brought on board in 2008 is not.

Debas said since her Tigrinya wasn’t as fluent as either director, Sinke would give her a synopsis of the scenes, so she could work on piecing together the story in a way that allowed it to flow thematically from one idea to the next so that in the end one cannot tell there were two shoots and two directors, the work so well integrated—one into the other.

Now that it is complete, it would be interesting to find out how Tsegay managed to keep or maintain the story's integrity in Sinke’s physical absence. In a lot of ways, as the piece that sets the tone for the entire is even more remarkable that the Asmara director was able to pull it off. I wonder if such innovation is common in filmmaking?

It was remarkably courageous for the first time director to decide to use his native language rather than English to tell the story as well. Is it because of its theme or the audience he was trying to reach?

Many women marry men from different countries before coming to America or come to America to marry a man they might know simply as a pen-pal or correspondent—this is how my sister-in-law came to America. She didn’t marry the man who sent for her, but my brother, which is not the story here, but it is not at all unusual in the Muslim community for marriages to be made in cyberspace –close but not always heavenly (smile).

The African team was a professional cast and experienced director, while the California team consisted of first time actors. Maybe this is what makes the film work so well. The story is one which is not unique to the geography or ethnicity of the cast.

Everyone is a potential victim of a broken promise –it’s what one does afterward which is the key to this story. The character Winta is married to an older man, Asgodom (actor Girmay Ogbay) who lives in America. She travels to Oakland, to live with him and believes his promise of supporting her desire to get a college degree; however, this promise is supplanted with his desire for children first. Controlling and physically abusive, Winta grows desperate and without family doesn’t know what to do.

In director Sinke’s film “Winta,” one sees themes of immigration overlapping those of assimilation, cultural values, and true benevolence, as portrayed by Suleman (actor Biniam Habtemichael), a stranger and Winta’s neighbor who goes out of his way to help her escape her unhappy household. Suleman creates a network of supportive safe houses for her among his friends who almost all agree to try to handle the dissolution without bringing in the police: there is Suleman’s friend, “Dawit” (actor Merih Abrha), a man who is also guardian for his younger sisters: “Haben” (17) (actress Jerusalem Gebru), and the slightly older sister “Salem” (actress Awet Misgun). Salem is living out of wedlock with “Mussie” (actor Yonas Tesfagabr), a man her brother doesn’t approve of. Dawit is an engineer whose traditional or conservative views on courtship and relationships speak to the same values Winta also accepts and believes. It is here that Winta finally feels at home until superficial circumstances interfere in her budding romance with her host.

Winta finds herself once again misunderstood with friendships souring between her and her hosts to the point she can’t sleep or eat. Suleman continues to support and believe in her throughout her journey; he doesn’t let the negative tales told to him about her color his relationship with her or affect how he perceives her.

This is one of the lessons in Sinke’s “Winta,” that we cannot always believe what we see and that often our prejudices cloud our vision so that we read situations in ways which confirm our misperceptions or lies. Salem thinks her partner, Mussie, is cheating on her with Winta, when he isn’t. Haben thinks Winta is lying when she sees Winta greeting her sister’s boyfriend, Mussie, in the parking lot of her job. She assumes Winta is cheating and lying about it when she goes to Winta’s job and she isn’t there yet. Winta tells her she took a taxi to work because she ran late from an appointment. She didn’t see Winta get out of the taxi (so of course Winta is lying). Winta’s ex-husband, Asgodom, believes the worse of Winta as well because he feels guilty about his broken promises. He thinks his wife is cheating on him because Winta greets a neighbor in the hallway of their apartment as she returns from tossing the trash. This same man comes back into the story later on, so the husband thinks the meeting in the hallway was planned. Suspicion has dire consequences for all involved especially the innocent.

Oakland is like a small town, so lives overlap innocently. Not so for Winta, she is always at fault in her new country. Connecting the dots leads to erroneous conclusions each time a character picks up his or her pen to draw Winta’s profile. The Eritrea immigrants Winta meets through Suleman are so removed from their cultural values, ones Winta holds as a recent immigrant, that they are reading her behavior out of context.

One might think American cultural norms are globalized via cyberspace, but Winta’s tight jeans in Eritrea do not mean she is a loose woman in America—no matter her innocence of naïveté. She might be oblivious to the subliminal messages such clothing choices carry in her new country; however, her intention is not to attract male attention or to flirt or make Salem or even Asgedom jealous, even if the camera panning her derrière follows the unbidden thoughts hidden in those male or female eyes: Messie’s, Dawit’s, Haben’s, even Suleman’s.

If each character would look into his or her own heart, each person would realize that the reason each of them is blaming “Winta” is based on his or her own fears and insecurities. To love someone, “Winta” teaches everyone, means one has to love oneself first and live one’s truth. There are only two people in the film who do this: “Suleman” and Winta’s estranged husband’s best friend “Bereket” (actor Mebrahtu Asmelash) who assists “Winta” by talking truth to his friend “Asgodom” who angrily refuses to hear him out.

I know well the geography of the film: Piedmont Garden Apartments across from the Kaiser Permanente Hospital campus in Oakland, Asmara Restaurant –which nicely parallels Asmara, Eritrea, where Winta comes from, and the Red Sea Restaurant & Bar.

I remember when many of my neighbors were relocated from Oak Center 1 Apartments to Piedmont Gardens when the rental company was remodeling our apartments and subsequently evicting many of the families who had lived at Oak Center for decades. This was in 2000. It was a forced removal like that experienced by black property owners historically throughout the Bay Area. We weren’t property owners so it was easier to get rid of us; nonetheless the result was the same, a disruption and permanent elimination of a strong black community which in our case was a model Pan African community with Eritrean neighbors, Nigerian neighbors, Somalians, and a multigenerational African Americans community living together. It was a priceless experience to live in and raise a family for 15 years. My children grew up in such a community; my father when he could no longer take care of himself, also lived at Oak Center until he died; my brother also lived there briefly while my father was sick.

Piedmont Apartments where “Winta” meets “Suleman ” reminds me of Oak Center— the spirit of the place. We were one big family, which means all the members—no matter how new to the vicinity, were treated with respect and kindness. Suleman’s trust and selflessness is not fictional. Such kindness really does exist today in a society where cynicism is becoming the norm. There are not as many “Sulemans,” but he does still exist and what happens in “Winta” is at once fictional and real. This is one of the reasons why this film pacts such a powerful lesson.

The cinematography is great as well. The director has a wonderful first film. He was on his way to the Eritrean Soccer Match in Atlanta. It is a big tournament which has moved throughout the country (maybe world) for the past 20 years. He is showing the film there and will be joined by some of the cast. We were lucky at the Bay Area screening to meet so many members of the cast: the star who plays Winta, the actor who plays Suleman, the actor who is Winta’s husband, his friend, Dawit, who falls in love with Winta. That character’s sisters weren’t there when I left. The director, Mesfin Sinke, was there of course and the editor, Feven Debo, plus my friend Jai Jia Noire who was going to be filming audience responses last night. Jai also shot the scenes that take place in a mechanic’s garage in Oakland where Winta’s husband works. She also helped with fixing color correction, audio correction, SFX, fine tuning some edits, and DVD authoring. Further editing was done by Biniam Habtemichael (Suleman).

I kept hearing Gil Scott Heron’s classic: Winter in America when I heard the name of the film and its principle character's name. Winta's tragic tale certainly reflects symbolically on a sort of winter, a time when seasonally the planet retreats and all life recedes from view. Winta tells Dawit she wants to go home. Home is a place where she was loved by her mother and siblings, a place where there was life, not the barren winter that marks her stay in America.

Now "Winta" in Tigrinya might have a lovely meaning, but this is the beauty of how the linguistic nuances heard in the term "Winta" play so well in both cultures: American and African.

I interview Feven Debas briefly on Wanda's Picks Radio Friday, July 2, 2010. She is on about 9:25 for about 5-7 minutes (smile). We are going to have more cast on when the director returns from Atlanta this week, later in July. Stay tuned.


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