The Invisible Rise of the Phoenix: How Sudanese Cinema is missing its most important pillar

Originally featured in Teakisi Magazine

With recent developments in technology and knowledge sharing, many once-unavailable skills and professions have now become open and accessible to everyone; one of which is filmmaking. All over the world normal people with growingly cheaper and more basic cameras, and armed with a few YouTube tutorials and a supportive network, are making films. And not just films, but series, sketches, educational and music videos, investigative reports, and many more, contributing to a now thriving film industry in Africa, with successful examples such as Nigeria’s blockbuster Nollywood.
Sudan is no different, but not as successful. Despite over a century passing since the first film was made and screened in 1910, and a once thriving industry with open air and closed cinemas all over the country and Sudanese films winning awards all over the world, the industry eventually came to a grinding halt due to several reasons. Now, it’s back in the air, albeit hesitatingly, with young enthusiasts flocking in from all over with their independently made short and long films, shot with a wide range of experience, technology and capabilities. Foreign cultural centers fund and support projects, festivals and screenings, and several film festivals play around the year. Several films have been screened in international festivals and a few have even won prizes. Sudanese filmmaking is becoming democratized, and is no longer confined to only those who can afford it. So with all these films being made, what about the ‘industry’ itself? And more importantly, with all these films being produced, who is seeing them? Not that many people, unfortunately.
A short while ago an unpleasant encounter made its way to Facebook and attracted some publicity. It was the not unheard of case of the subject of a documentary, a certain young man, who had a falling out with the director of the documentary, another young man, and decided that he would leak the aforementioned documentary to YouTube – obviously without the director’s permission. The young man’s justification was that he had repeatedly asked the director to release the film for the general audience, which the director refused, because the film was to be screened in international festivals, which is not possible for films that are publicly available online.
To give some context here: many, if not all, Sudanese filmmakers target national and international film festivals to screen their films. Film festivals are an opportunity for exposure, networking, marketing and possible future collaborations, all of which are not as possible for films that stay home. For a film to be accepted in a film festival, it should be fairly recently made, not available on any online streaming platform, and in some cases not previously screened publicly or in other festivals. Most of the time filmmakers have to fund their own film submission and attendance, but in some cases are lucky to have someone sponsor this for them. Therefore, any screening of the film must be within the confines of a screening event, which may be public or private, paid or unpaid. In Sudan these events are almost always public and free.
So what’s the problem here?
The problem is that these screening events, which in Khartoum are usually held in a handful of places which can support such a thing, are almost always ‘exclusive’. Meaning, the average Awad from Ombada, who does not have a Facebook account or is friends with the right network of people through which he can see the announcement or get invited, who has never heard of any of these foreign cultural centers, will have no access to or even an idea of such an event, and hence such a film. Sudanese people outside the country – indeed, even outside the capital – have no access to these screenings, or the films themselves. The few remaining cinemas in Sudan do not function and there are no public screening venues available.
So the question is: can you even have an industry without an audience?
Keep in mind that the vast majority of filmmakers fund themselves, go through a lot of trouble to be able to shoot their scenes (especially on the street due to harassment by authorities) and end up producing, directing, editing and marketing the films by themselves. For most, filmmaking is a means of self-expression. For others, it’s just for fun. Out of the few dozen films that have surfaced in the past 10 years or less, a few discuss social and political issues, such as Taghreed Elsanhouri’s film Our Beloved Sudan, which looks at the secession of the South from a mixed Sudanese family’s point of view. Others look at current-day issues, but in the form of fiction, such as Mohamed Kordofani’s Gone For Gold, a short film about today’s gold rush, and his second film Nyerkuk, a Sudanese Oliver Twist spin off. Recently, a collection of vintage documentaries from the sixties made by the late Gadallah Jubarah were unearthed after being digitalized and made viewable. The films show the forgotten Khartoum in its glory days, a Khartoum today’s generation never saw and yesterday’s generation remembers with tears of nostalgia. And then there are the others; a long list of mostly short films that are often the result of film making workshops, and almost always a one-time production for the filmmaker. A very small handful of filmmakers go on to produce one or two more films of their own, of very varying quality. No one can say this is enough to make even the basis of an ‘industry’. But at the same time, at least some growing effort is being made.
And yet, where are these films? How many people have seen them? How many people even know they exist? Is Sudanese cinema an exclusive club that only the usual elite of the society have access to? How long does a film have to make the festival rounds until it is ‘released to the public’? Should it even be released to the public? Or was it never made to be seen by the public in the first place? When will the average Awad from Ombada be able to see a filmmaker’s take on poverty, social injustice and politics? When will he discover the talent and innovation that exists on the other side of the glass wall that separates 99% of the country from the remaining 1%?
The divide that exists in Sudanese ‘cinema’ is a reflection of what all other aspects of life look like in Sudan. Through the long years of political and economic turmoil, and with the Sudanese citizen reduced to a being whose only goal is to scrape together enough to keep food on the table and the kids in school, the luxury of cultural events is unreachable and uninteresting to the masses. It’s a waste of time and money that is desperately needed elsewhere. But if the phoenix of Sudanese cinema – and music and literature and theater and life – is to somehow rise again from the ashes, it cannot do so without someone to appreciate it. Just as important as funding, legislation and marketing, the industry needs an audience, and the audience needs to have access.
It’s up to filmmakers and those supporting them to decide if this is something they really can do without.

Comments