I made a documentary about my grandfather, who I never met. His picture hung on the wall of every house we lived in for as long as I remember, and I had heard countless stories about him and the things he said/did from so many different people that it was as if I had known him in person. Being a writer, I wanted to write about him, but there are some stories you cannot tell in English. And so, in early 2013, we decided to make a film instead.
Apparently, filming was not as easy and straight forward as photography. I spent hours online watching YouTube videos that talked about lighting and scenario and sound capture and editing. Ahmed got me a shotgun microphone that connected straight to the camera, but then we realized that the camera didn’t have an inlet for a microphone, so I borrowed one of the hand-held voice recorders from the office and used that instead. Then, I caught hold of everyone and anyone who could help me out: Mohamed Siddig told me how to manage lighting with a floodlight that I could buy from a hardware store, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Taghreed Sanhouri gave me the number of the guy who filmed her movie, but I couldn’t afford him. Rhea Schmitt adjusted the settings on my camera, lent me a tripod (which I forgot to take from her office), gave me a CD with the Final Cut Pro software to use for editing, taught me how to use it and then offered to let me use her computer to do all the editing later. She also told me there was a project called the Sudan Film Factory based in the German Institute, and that they could help me out. Mustafa Davis patiently answered the torrent of messages I harassed him with and also gave me several tips on shooting low-budget films, and the advice he regularly posted on his wall was immensely helpful. But it wasn’t enough.
My biggest problem was the lighting, and several interviews I took had to be scrapped because no matter how bright the room was, the footage was still grainy and bad. It wasn’t about the camera, it was the lighting. Then I remembered there was that thing called Sudan Film Factory. I had seen a bunch of their films in the European Film Festival the year before and heard they gave workshops. Maybe they could lend me some equipment? It took me a while to find them but I did, and on the last week of December, 2013 I parked my car on McNimir street and marched down to the German Institute where I was told they were based.
It was closed. It was Christmas. The guard told me through gate bars that no one was home, and that this filming thing was managed by some guy named Talal Afifi, who had gone to Egypt for the holidays. When would Mr. Afifi be back? Ma 3arif, 2 or 3 weeks maybe. Well could I have Mr. Afifi’s number so I could call him when he gets back? It’s kind of urgent. No, I don’t have/won’t give you his number, but here’s a GOETHE bookmark with the new year’s calendar instead. Fine, could you at least give him my number when he gets back? He uninterestedly took my business card and I knew that card wasn’t going anywhere.
I waited for a few weeks then contacted GOETHE via email explaining my situation. I was told that the Film Factory project had ended and that the equipment was stored and used only for large projects and they didn’t have the capacity to rent anything out. I resumed my desperate search for help but was more or less giving up. A lot of things were happening and bit by bit the documentary was getting further and further from my mind. No one else remembered it and I almost forgot about it myself. I had started and was struggling with my masters’ research, had just broken off my turbulent engagement, and had to travel to Oman to work for a few weeks in my old ER and apply for my final emergency medicine exams from there. Life in general was not fun. The first half of 2014 was one of the darkest and unproductive times I had gone through. Once, I was told about a bunch of young film makers called Cinema Alshabab and went to attend their screening. It seemed I was the only person in the room over the age of 20, until a tall man with grayish hair came in and was greeted by the organizers with much reverence. He looked familiar, and I remembered I had seen him at the European Film Festival and that he had been in-charge of something or had directed one of the films. I stayed for about an hour then left, unimpressed.
Then, I received an email that the short story I had submitted to a writing competition ages ago, which had also been about my grandfather, had been selected for publishing in a book, and Laila Abuela had chosen it as an Honourable Mention. Also, would I mind reading it at TEDx later that year? I was shocked; I couldn’t believe that the bit of crap I had written and submitted had actually been read by LA and she had actually liked it, AND it was going to be published in an actual book. Apparently, I wasn’t so bad after all. It was like someone had turned on the light in my dark and dusty head. And I suddenly remembered that I was working on a documentary about my grandfather.
The lady at GOETHE had given me the number of a guy who could do the filming, which he did and he was so nice that he didn’t even want to get paid. Then he went and got married so I had to find someone else, which I did and who charged me twice my salary for 2 hours of filming. I was told that the Albarkal Festival was coming up on December 5th and that they wanted to show my film there, but I was far from done and I just couldn’t do it on my own. I went back to asking for help, and sent messages to the Film Factory, Mustafa Davis and the Cinema Shabab kids, but only Mustafa Davis would respond and he could only advise me so much. Thankfully though, Mohd Subahi came back from his very short honeymoon and agreed to do the rest of the filming. He even agreed to go back to Karima and repeat some of the interviews I had done the year before.
Then, I got a phone call from Talal Afifi, who told me he had just seen my messages and asked me to pass by the Film Factory to see what we could do about this film of mine. I wasn’t going to go. What use was it? I had 2 weeks left till the festival and had already found someone to film the rest of the stuff; they couldn’t help me now. I don’t know why I eventually went, but I did, and met the same man I had seen at the screening several months before. We talked about my film and what I had done so far, and he told me that it was the kind of film he would watch once but never again, and that the story is really beautiful but should be told in a more personal manner. I went home that day and felt like everything I had been doing up till that moment was rubbish. I was an amateur. What was I thinking, trying to make an actual film and even wanting to show it to people? And the guy was right: this was something that was just about as interesting and intense as the life cycle of the Cuban Sea Turtle, or the cardboard box industry.
But there was no turning back now, so I wrapped up the filming and looked for the CD Rhea Schmitt gave me and started editing. But then my uncles decided that since this was such an important film, they wanted a professional to do the editing, and I was directed to a young and polite young man who agreed to do the job in such a short time. I went back to the FF a couple of times to work with him, and got on the bus to Alshimaliya on Friday morning to attend the festival. The projectors there kept going off because of the unstable electricity, so I showed it at home on my laptop for the family, who liked it but I hated it, and decided I would have to do the editing all over again myself. My dad was coming in about 6 weeks and I wanted him to attend a proper screening.
I went back to the FF who were preparing for the Sudan Independent Film Festival to try and get whatever help I could, and indeed got to attend a workshop on Sound for Film by the totally awesome Tariq Sulaiman. It was the weirdest workshop I had ever attended, and I initially felt so terribly out of place I doubted I would continue. The educational material was movies and pop music, the group work and exercises was recording sounds for the film ‘Whiplash’, and I finally discovered what all those different microphones were used for. It was exhausting and confusing and crazy and the most fun I had had in ages. And they were nice enough to repeat everything slowly to me and put up with my stupid questions, even though they were all professionals like Amin Bahari and the boys from Tenchologya, Yakhwanna and Ne7na, and I was sorry when it ended.
Long story short, my dad arrived and we set a date for a screening. And of course, all sorts of things happened at the same time: my grandfather got sick with a bedsore that I had thought was healing but was in fact hiding a huge ulcer that got infected and eventually burst. I cried when the doctor said he needed urgent surgery and stayed up for 2 nights with him at the hospital, worried sick and cursing my stupidity and carelessness. Then my dad asked me if we could cancel the screening or if I could manage to do something about it, and I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I took the rest of the week off from work and tried to get my head back into the editing. Then, on Wednesday morning I was woken by a feeling that my hand was on fire. I couldn’t move my fingers; it felt like a burning hot needle was being pushed straight through. The area was red and swollen; and I vaguely remembered it had been hurting for the past few days but I had ignored it. It was an inflammation of the tendon and hurt like hell: I couldn't hold the steering wheel, comb my hair, turn the tap or hold a mouse. But I had no choice: I had to finish the film. I took 3 different painkillers, a muscle relaxant, an antibiotic and hand support and kept working.
I spent the rest of the time at the FF after Talal gave me the keys to the place, and worked from morning to night, leaving as late as 10:30. I asked Ahmed Cool to help with the fine touches and he spent a few hours with me one evening and the next day on the phone explaining everything. On Friday, the day of the screening, I was to be seen at the FF wearing jeans and T-shirt and someone’s sifinja, hunched in front of the monitors, racing against time to try and finish everything before 7 p.m. in time for the screening at 8 p.m. at the Albarkal Club. It was a mess, there was too much and too little, things were disappearing or not working, and I worked continuously without even drinking a glass of water. I finished at 8:15 pm, and was horrified when the computer informed me that it was going to take 47 minutes to render. I rushed all over the place looking for the wires for the projector that I was borrowing/stealing and tried not to break down when my dad told me people were leaving already because I was so late.
Anyway, I finally got there, and hooked everything up and the film started. I watched in horror as transitions froze, some names were forgotten, the sound was messed up and several other editing mistakes. But I also looked closely at the faces of the audience, and heard them laugh at all the funny parts and were sad and cried when the ending showed my grandfather’s grave. And the best part was when, at the end of the event, my dad came over and hugged me and kissed my head, and said:
‘I am so, so, so proud of you.’
And that was what made it all worth it.
الله يرحمك يا محجوب ود عاشة