Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Muscat Film Screening Night: A Taste of Home

While on holiday in Oman, I arranged a film screening at the Sudanese Social Club in Muscat. The initial idea was to screen my own film, Light of the Sahara, with a collection of other short films from Sudan Film Factory’s workshops to give Sudanese in Oman an idea about the film making industry in Sudan. Due to several foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, I could not finish the re-editing of my film before travelling to Muscat, and working on it on my laptop was impossible due to the sheer size of the project. But after thinking about it for a while, I thought why not screen the other films anyway? And to add to the fun, why not screen Alkhartoum by Gadallah Gubara? I knew that this particular film would be very much appreciated especially by the people who had left Sudan from as far back as the early 70s and just could not come to terms with what the country had come to now.
So after taking all necessary permissions from the directors and producers, I approached a neighbor whom my dad said was in touch with the leaders of the Sudanese community in Oman. I wanted to screen it in a public place, easily accessible and preferably belonging to the Sudanese community in Muscat. Since the embassy was now off-limits, the next best option was the Sudanese Social club – a place I had been to only a handful of times in my life because it was so far from everywhere and because I found it immensely boring. Eventually I was put in touch with a young man whom I am related to somehow in that unique Sudanese way, and we met so that I could show him the films. Impressed, he took the message back to his people, who asked to see the films themselves. So off to the club I went, and sat down with 2 elderly gentlemen whom I showed AlKhartoum, Diversity by Mohamed Hanafi, Maaz Alnujoomi and Nala Mohakar, and 50 by Ibrahim Mursal.
I found their discussions and comments quite interesting, mostly the comments about how these films showed how normal life used to be in Khartoum, not just in the 70s but also before the secession of the South. Suddenly I had a flashback which I shared on my Facebook page, about how when I was a freshman at Juba University and couldn’t fit in anywhere and was made fun because of my strange clothing and broken Arabic, that the first people to welcome me into their midst was a group of young, smiling Southern Sudanese guys, because ‘they liked my English’. They were my first friends in the whole of Sudan.
Anyway, I then contacted several of my director friends and asked for permission to screen their films as well, because I wanted the audience to see the latest and highest quality of short films possible at such short notice. Elaf Alkanzy gave us her film Shimesh, Razan Hashim provided Existence, and Mohamed Kordofani sent his film Gone for Gold. Other options for screening were Malakia Juba by Muzamil Nizam Eldin and Beats of the Antonov by Hajooj Kuka, but both were too long and intense and would have needed a night on their own. Obviously, it didn’t occur to me to try and arrange more than one night for film screening.
Long story short, the organizers said that the screening would better take place as part of their Independence Day celebrations, so by some twist it turned out to be the last night of my stay in Oman. I made the poster and sent out invitations, called and messaged and harassed friends, families and neighbours of all nationalities to come, and made a big fuss out of the whole thing. I translated the film Khartoum into Arabic and edited in the subtitles (as well as editing out a 2 second segment of a woman in a bikini). I had to show the films to 5 different people on 3 different occasions to get them cleared for screening, and was told several times not to expect much of a crowd, especially young people, but despite my and my dad’s irritation I kept my mouth shut and agreed to whatever was said because for once, I just wanted this night to happen. I. My dad suggested I prepare a presentation to go with the screening, because pretty much everyone attending was expected to have no idea about Sudanese cinema at all.
And finally, the day arrived. On a Thursday afternoon, we drove my dad to the airport and dropped him off (he had already booked his flight and so unfortunately missed the event), picked up a couple of friends and headed to the Social Club which was a good 40 minutes away from our campus. They had arranged the screening in a closed hall, but it could hold up to 70 people so I wasn’t too worried. All the equipment was in place and we spent a while testing audio and microphones, adjusting levels and positions, and checking everything was working and in place. And then, we waited. I had announced that the screening would start at 8 pm, but the invitations sent from the club to its members stated 8:30 for some reason, which meant that people wouldn’t show up till 9. The organizers arrived and had a look over. A couple of my relatives also came in early. Then we all had ta3miya sandwiches from the club’s canteen, while my friend Amal tested the live broadcasting service provided by Facebook.
At 8:02, a young non-Sudanese woman came in and sat in the back. I went over and said hi, and she said she was an Omani friend of one of my friends and was interested in arts in general and had seen the announcement and decided to check it out. I was quite flattered, and decided this was a good start to the evening. Bit by bit, people started to filter in, but not that many. At around 8:25 I was informed that one of the head club members who was in charge of documentation was a good 30 minutes away and that we should wait for him. I was very irritated, but didn’t know what to do. I was screening 6 films, plus a presentation, plus the discussion and 8:30 was already too late. A few minutes later they said they couldn’t wait for him anyway, so let’s just start. Finally!
I sat up front with the cultural secretary who gave a short introduction, and then I commenced with the presentation, at the end of which the hall had filled to about half of its capacity, with many elderly men in their 3immas pulling their chairs up as close to the screen as possible. Then, the films started. First, Khartoum by Gadallah Gubara, where people burst out laughing at the mention of Khartoum being the cleanest city in Africa and a dozen bananas costing a farthing. When Nimeri showed up on the screen, people in back clapped and cheered. Mumbles of surprise and laughter at the commentary about how the Sudanese enjoyed musical shows and films from all over the world, at the new and chic hotels and clubs, and at the clean streets with people driving on the left side of the road. A loud applause when the film was over. Next was 'Diversity' by Sudan Film Factory, a film made in 2010 as part of their first workshop, which followed a group called Sudan Unite who used art as a means to call for a united Sudan in the looming shadow of the South’s referendum and eventual secession. It was also well received. Then followed 4 short films: Gone for Gold was an apparent favourite, and I laughed when I heard the loud gasps with the unexpected plot twist. With Shimesh, I heard the ‘kor 3aley’s as the little street boy pulled out the picture of his lost family. Laughter in Razan Hashim’s existence as the little girl eats her sandwich while watching TV, and more laughter as the coin and 5 pound bill in ‘50’ exchange news and complaints in a rickety old drawer in a university cafeteria. When the last 2 films where remaining, it was already almost 10:30, so I informed the audience that I had 2 films left, one 18 minutes and the other 5 minutes and I could show just the shorter one if they were tired. Everyone shouted ‘show them both!’, so we did. Overall, all the films were received with enthusiastic applause. And when the lights came on at the end of show, the hall was packed with just a few seats empty. Basically around 60+ people had filled the room, which was 60 more than anyone had expected.
And then came the discussion. I didn’t really know what to expect, because this was the first time I had attended a screening for Sudanese in the Diaspora, and especially a group with such a wide range of ages and backgrounds. I had both Sudanese and non-Sudanese, academics and businessmen and housewives and students, and the men in the front looked about 70 while towards the back there was a girl who couldn’t be more than 14 years old (who later came and begged me to show/give her the films because she had missed all but the last because they were stuck in a karate lesson that had ended late). Also equally surprised was the lack of annoying children who are a hallmark of any Sudanese gathering. One kid showed up in the middle of the event and was unceremoniously shooed out of the hall by the audience. The main points of discussion were as follows:
The first woman to stand up and comment was quite emotional as she spoke about Gadallah Gubara being the photographer who had documented one of the most important moments in our history: the Independence. Seeing where Khartoum was and where we are now had made her upset. She said that despite our differences no one harmed the other, but that people now went to unprecedented lengths because of greed and poverty (she was commenting on the film Gone for Gold). As for the film Existence, she said that Sudanese relationships had changed, like this poor old grandmother living alone and having to work for a living, which was definitely the doing of her daughter in law! I found this observation an interesting interpretation of a film that I had thought very differently of. Later, my brother told me the best thing about this film was the simple fact that it had a grandmother in it, which further showed just how differently one film could be interpreted and received. It was also mentioned by someone that old women remain productive until the end of their days.
One elderly gentleman took the microphone and said how very proud he was of the young audience attending today, and that they wanted the mission of the club to continue which needs the younger people to come more regularly and to present and organize their own events and participate in the regular events the club holds. Again, Gadallah Gubara was mentioned and how he was in-charge of the mobile cinema back in their days. He then asked an important question: are those who followed in Gadallah’s steps under financed? Is that why cinema and the quality of films has deteriorated so much since then? Even these cultural institutions I had mentioned as serving as screening venues and sponsoring workshops for filmmakers; have they their own interests in mind in this support?
I answered this question as well as I could: in that there is very little support for filmmaking in Sudan. In fact, there are more obstacles than support, and that the authorities’ role is more of harassment than anything else. Most, if not all, filmmakers were self-financed (I gave myself as an example and how my family had financed my entire filmmaking career). Bodies like the Film Factory also depended on support from mainly non-Sudanese entities. And other things of the sort.
Someone praised the film Khartoum, and was so happy it was screened because they tell their children all the time about how glorious Sudan used to be, that it was the cleanest capital in Africa! But now their children could actually see this with their own eyes. And it was important that films like this be screened regularly. They also mentioned how the people looked in the film: relaxed, smiling and happy. Who walks around on the streets of Khartoum looking like that these days?
About the film Shimesh, which talks about a small street boy, one gentleman talked about how we look down on these people, but that they are people just like us, people with feelings and dreams. If this kid had found an education and someone to care for him, he would probably have become better than all of us. About the film ‘50’, which follows a 50 piaster coin around the city: this simply shows us how low our economy has reached. He spoke about how his generation doesn’t do justice to the younger generations and always point out that how useless they are. He commented on the backgrounds of the organizer (myself, a doctor) and the film directors (pharmacists, petroleum engineers, aviation engineers) and that ‘we don’t want our kids to be just academics, but to also embrace and encourage their artistic and creative side’. He urged the younger generation not to wait for someone to help them do these things. He echoed the usual thoughts of how they feel that their generation was the best and those behind them are lost, but that they actually need to support this generation, and everyone needs to accept the challenge.
One lady mentioned that if she had not come tonight and seen these movies she would have died of regret, and how difficult it was going to be to describe it to those who had missed it. One thing she praised was the acting: this was the first time she had seen Sudanese acting of this quality, even without dialogue. The film Diversity was someone’s favourite, especially their paintings and the celebrations to attract people to unity. The young Omani lady said that she had come to have a good time and wasn’t disappointed, and while she hadn’t known what to expect because she had no background about Sudanese cinema, she was still pleasantly surprised about what she had seen tonight. She had learned a lot about Sudanese cinema and its high quality.
Dr. Yousuf Alobeid talked about how his father, the late Abdel Rahman Alobeid had been a member of a team who worked in the observation room in Cinema Coliseum where they used to watch every film that comes in, then decide if they will be played or not. They even reviewed the posters to decide if they would be appropriate to show.
One young man stood up to comment, and talked about how the differences between the old and new generations and the constant attack of the old to the new was intended to push them forward but in-fact did the opposite. If the generation that criticizes the young all the time takes more care in finding and nurturing their talent, this would be far more helpful. Apparently, the films shown tonight had provided strong proof that the younger generation of Sudanese are not at all hopeless. He also talked about the quality of the films: that sometimes it would be high quality footage with expensive equipment but no story, and sometimes a great story but crap quality, but for the first time tonight he had seen films with both a good story and great quality. But the question on his and everyone else’s minds was: Why didn’t I see these films? Why are they not known and available?
This was the main point of the evening: these films and others like it need to be available for the public. It was very sad that these things are not available to be publicly viewed. One man mentioned that he had left the country in 1979, and that’s where his memory of the place stops, that’s all he knows of it. When people see these films they want to see more. They miss these things. I honestly could not defend this point at all. For myself, I make films because I have an issue that I want people to know about. I want people to see my films. I honestly cannot understand why filmmakers in Sudan insist on hiding their films because of fear of ‘illegal distribution’, or because they want the films to circulate only in festivals or screenings that they arrange themselves. One woman offered to buy the DVDs, and said that they were happy to support these filmmakers by buying and distributing their films. Unfortunately this was not an option, and everyone left empty handed.
Overall, it was an interesting experience, and I promised to come back to Sudan and secure screening rights for the Sudanese community in Oman for as many films as I could, for them to be able to hold regular screening events of their own, and hopefully to encourage any potential filmmakers in their midst to take the step towards making their own films. I think that whatever the intended messages of these films are, their role for the audience and especially those in the Diaspora is far underrated and unappreciated. The night showed me not only the power film has over people's emotions and perception of the world, but also the ability to open a dialogue between different backgrounds and generations on topics that are rarely discussed. It gives people a common ground to stand on, and draws a picture in a way that no amount of describing can do. And for people in the Diaspora with nothing to connect them and their children to Sudan but the constant news of political unrest, economic depression and societal deterioration, all this means so much more to them.

For them, these films bring them a little bit closer to home.