Reviving Sudan’s love of cinema

Rigid politics and economic hardship brought an end to the booming film industry, but many are now trying to revive it.

Tayeb el-Mahdi, chair of the Sudan Film Group, says documentaries thrive in Sudan [Isma'il Kushkush/Al Jazeera]
Tayeb el-Mahdi, chair of the Sudan Film Group, says documentaries thrive in Sudan [Isma'il Kushkush/Al Jazeera]

Khartoum, Sudan – It had been years since a crowd this big gathered for an event like this.

Hundreds filled Khartoum International Community School’s amphitheatre, a posh school for children of the city’s elite, some even crammed on its stairways. A white screen slowly descended and after short introductions, a film began rolling.

A short-feature film about a Sudanese immigrant family in the United States, Faisal Goes West, opened the Sudanese Independent Film Festival (SIFF) last month.

“This is a step forward,” said Ramey Dawoud, the 23-year-old star of Faisal Goes West. “It can open doors.”

Filmmaking and theatres came to Sudan more than a century ago, making it one of the first countries in Africa or the Middle East to embrace the silver screen. Dozens of cinemas operated throughout the country and every daily newspaper listed the latest American, Italian, Egyptian, and Indian films.

But today’s papers don’t list screening times. Rigid politics and economic hardship brought an end to the film industry, and many are now trying to revive it.

I was overwhelmed. The news that it was chosen to be screened in the first independent film festival in Sudan was a sweet surprise for me.

- Ibrahim Mursal, 24, discussing his short-film Khamseen

“We used to go to the cinema every day,” said 65-year-old Mahmoud Abdu. “I saw Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Dirty Dozen, West Side Story and many other films at the cinema.”

Early films

The first film made and shown in Sudan was screened in 1912, when British colonial authorities made a documentary about King George V’s visit to the country and showed it in an open-aired theatre. Greek immigrants first established dedicated movie theatres in Khartoum in the 1920s, which showed silent movies.

“The Colisseum was one of Khartoum’s first cinemas, established in 1935,” said Tayeb el-Mahdi, chair of the Sudan Film Group. “Later, Sudanese businessmen established The Sudan Cinema Corporation that established more theatres and imported and distributed films.”

In the 1950s, authorities established the Sudan Film Unit to produce short, black-and-white news and educational features. Many of its films were shown around the country via mobile cinema trucks.

“The first Sudanese film was a short drama called Homeless Childhood about homeless children in 1952,” explained 60-year-old Mahdi.

In the late 1960s, Sudanese filmmakers began producing long-feature dramas, the first being Hope and Dreams in 1970. That effort, however, stumbled upon many challenges, and eventually resulted in the production of only a handful of films.

“There was never enough support from the state or private sector,” Mahdi said. “And many believed filmmaking was a risky business and had no guaranteed future.”

Documentary filmmaking, on the other hand, did well in Sudan, with a number of Sudanese documentaries winning international prizes.

An advert for The Crimson Pirate in a Sudanese newspaper in June 1965 [The Sudan Records House]

“Documentaries are easier and cheaper to make, and Sudan has a rich and diverse culture that is good material for documentaries,” said Mahdi.

Sudan television even broadcasted a weekly film review show, “Cinema Cinema”, that attracted thousands of viewers in the 1980s.

“‘Cinema Cinema’ was the number one show on television,” recalled 55-year-old Salah Abdel-Rahim, the show’s presenter. “Sudanese love cinema.”

Change of scene

That all changed after 1989, when a new government with an Islamist agenda came to power. Soon after, hardliners in the government dissolved The Sudanese Cinema Company and the movie business looked set for its final scenes.

Censorship, higher taxes, import customs – along with competition from satellite TV and the internet – have made operating cinema theatres an unprofitable venture. Now, only one of Khartoum’s 14 movie theatres continues to operate.

Many government-owned theatres, now crumbling or demolished, were sold off. The old Colosseum Cinema became part of Khartoum’s riot police headquarters, and several filmmakers left the industry or went into exile.

Two decades later, however, young Sudanese filmmakers, locally and in the diaspora, with access to cheaper technologies, are seeking to revive the sector.

Raised in Britain, independent filmmaker Taghreed Sanhouri has made documentaries on the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, displaced children, and the split of Sudan into two states. Her works have received the attention of international film festivals in New York, Toronto, Amsterdam and elsewhere.

Ramey Dawoud is the star of Faisal Goes West
[Mohamed Siddig/Al Jazeera]

“Being misrepresented and misunderstood” and “the experience of displacement and belonging to two different worlds” is what got her interested in filmmaking, she explained.

Talal Afifi, 37, a film curator, lived near one of Khartoum’s old theatres as a child. “I used to see the projector’s light come out and always wondered how films were made.”

That childhood curiosity pushed Afifi towards cinematography, and in 2010 Afifi and others – with help from the Goethe Institute – established the Sudan Film Factory.

An initiative to train amateur and aspiring filmmakers, the Sudan Film Factory has carried out dozens of seminars and workshops, and has helped to produce 33 short films so far. Spinning out from its work, the idea of the Sudanese Independent Film Festival came into being, and two of the Factory’s films were featured at this year’s event.

Khamseen, or “fifty,” a short film by 24-year-old Ibrahim Mursal, follows the journey of a 50 piaster coin as it changes hands, “from those who don’t need it to those who don’t have anything but it”. It was one of the festival’s most well-received films.

“I was overwhelmed,” said Mursal. “The news that it was chosen to be screened in the first independent film festival in Sudan was a sweet surprise for me.”

The festival emphasised African cinema and featured films from Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. Sayed Fouad, chair of the Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt, was a guest of honour and was impressed with what he saw.

“The festival is a good step to bring back cinema to Sudan,” said Fouad. “But there is a need for political will to help.”

High standards

The film festival was a first-time experience for many in Sudan, and had several hiccups, said Graham Double, the event’s consultant.

It is vitally important that those in authority understand that cinema is not an enemy.

- Taghreed Sanhouri , independent filmmaker

“There were challenges,” said Double, covering his face and laughing. “There were management and leadership skills issues.”

Old-time cinema aficionados, while appreciative of the festival’s effort, were also concerned that the work of amateur filmmakers would overshadow previous filmmaking efforts, and did not yet live up to Sudan’s high standards.

“There should be more focus on improving filmmaking than festivals,” said Nasser al-Tayeb, 57, a filmmaker and critic.

Despite the challenges and criticism, however, most were positive about the future of cinema in Sudan, and called for support from the government.

“It is vitally important that those in authority understand that cinema is not an enemy,” Sanhouri said.

“Look at the poetry of Iranian cinema, which has created an aesthetic and visual language not offensive to the sensibilities of an Islamic society and regime,” she added.

Afifi, the festival’s chair, is already looking forward. “The goal is to a have a film school, film festival and film magazine.”

The audiences that attended the festival were also happy with what they saw. “I’ve never seen films in Sudan,” said 27-year-old Najla Salih. “It is an inspiration.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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