The history of Sudanese cinema is like that of many other SWANA nations, too long determined by the lasting effects of colonialism, political unrest, and public suppression. Yet, nonetheless, it reveals the resiliency of SWANA societies and the richness of our cultures and experiences. A retracing of the history of Sudanese cinema reveals that Sudanese filmmakers fought government repression both foreign and national. Today it is Sudan’s culture that informs modern day storytelling and technology is developing to support a new generation of filmmakers.
The history of Sudanese cinema begins with the introduction of film in Sudan, which took place under what was de facto British colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century. It was used to reinforce imperial control through wartime silent films like the first known short, Alarming the Queen’s Company of Grenadiers Guards at Omdurman, shot by John Benett-Stanford of British troops before the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 which was the British reconquering of the Sudan. Outside forces would continue to control film in Sudan into the next century. In the 1920s Greek immigrants, who had also been among the earliest photographers in Sudan, established cinemas for silent films in Khartoum, like the open air Coliseum Cinema, established in 1935. In years to follow, Sudanese businessmen founded the Sudan Cinema Corporation, which opened more cinemas in other cities and distributed imported films.
It was an ongoing struggle against foreign influence and control. It was not until Sudan gained independence in 1956 when Sudanese film started to reflect its subject and people. The establishment of the Sudan Film Unit by the new government was to make educational short documentaries about the country and newsreels which were shown in cinemas in major theaters and most notably on mobile cinema trucks which could bring film screenings to smaller villages in more remote areas.
Hopes and Dreams
The first known feature film in the history of Sudanese cinema is Hopes and Dreams directed by Ibram Mallassy in 1970 but little is known about the film because of the lack of an archival collection. Very few features were made in the years after this due to lack of funding from the government. In the late 70s there was a resurgence of filmmakers. Hussein Shariffe, a Sudanese painter, poet, and lecturer at Khartoum University, produced his first film, The Throwing of Fire, a documentary about a fire ritual celebrated by the Ingessana tribe of the Blue Nile State of Sudan. The short film documents the time honored tradition and celebrates the culture of native Sudanese societies. To remember Hussein Sharriffe’s life and films, The Sudan Independent Film Festival, founded by the Sudan Film Factory, was first held in 2014. It has continued annually on the anniversary of Shariffe’s death in honor of his life and contributions to Sudanese film and culture.
Perhaps the most well known Sudanese filmmaker worldwide is Gadalla Gubara, considered the father of Sudanese film. Gubara’s career is expansive, having worked in many forms on over 100 films since the 50s. In 1955 Gubara produced the first color film in the history of Sudanese cinema. It was about Khartoum as a modern city and is a tribute to the capital and what is seen by many as the “Golden Era of Sudan” in the 60s and 70s. The film captures the architecture, the shops, the nightlife, the fashions of the times and is a contribution to the genre of avant-garde city life. Gubara’s most celebrated film is the love story, Tajouj, released in 1977 about a forbidden love between people of different tribes. The film won Egypt’s highest award at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1982, and prizes at film festivals around the world in years to come. It was not only celebrated on an international stage, but is revered by the Sudanese people as a classic piece of film history. His legacy is continued by his daughter, Sara Gubara, who studied under her father and worked together on what became the first privately owned film production company in Sudan, Studio Gad. Sara is the first known female filmmaker in Sudan and her film, The Lover of Light released in 2004 is an ode to her father and his fight to address social injustice.
Everything changed at the end of the 80s when Omar Al-Bashir’s military coup overtook Sudan in 1989. Government suppression of the arts and media took hold of the country’s public cultural life. The Sudan Cinema Corporation was dissolved, and the 60 or so theaters were shut down and repurposed to support the new regime’s rule over the country. The old Coliseum Cinema in Khartoum became the new riot police headquarters as much of the history of Sudanese cinema was erased, locked away, and neglected to allow for a military state to take over. Until recently, there was no film archive accessible to the public. The distribution of and recognition of film was halted, providing no opportunity or support for modern filmmakers living within Sudan. In the 21st century technology has begun to create new avenues for the circulation and distribution of all media, and especially the evolving ways that films are viewed.
Sudan Film Factory
In 2010, the Sudan Film Factory was founded as a privately run non-commercial organization, an independent association for networking and promoting cinema inside and outside of the country. It functions as a cultural platform that aims to build the capacity of young Sudanese talents, produce films, and expose Sudanese audiences to filmmaking and cinema. It started off as a training project for documentary filmmaking through the Goethe Institute in late 2009. The Film Factory broke away from the Goethe Institute in 2013 to become an autonomous platform, continuing their work training filmmakers and producing films, as well as organizing an annual film festival. It has produced more than 44 films, and has conducted more than 30 training workshops in a variety of film industry skills which are all held free of charge. While the Sudanese government still does not support or provide the proper infrastructure to develop the arts, private organizations have taken initiatives to help secure funding and opportunities for Sudanese filmmakers and students of film. These funders include the Goethe Institute, Doha Film Institute, and Filmmakers Without Borders, as well as the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.
Sudanese Cinema Now
Despite all these developments and outreach from beyond Sudan’s borders, questions still loom. What happens to a culture when all production of artistic expression is exported to international audiences? What happens when the very same people the art is meant to represent and honor are denied access because of government censorship? In 2014, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, released the internationally acclaimed doc about the Sudanese army attacks on the people of the Nuba mountains, Beats of the Antonov. It was censored by the government and banned within the country. As international recognition of Sudanese film has increased, some efforts have been made to revive lost works of the 1900s. In 2015, parts of the film archive of Gadalla Gubara were digitized by a German-Sudanese film restoration project and his documentaries about life in Khartoum in the 60s, as well as Tajouj could finally be shown to new generations within Sudan and abroad. Initiatives like these are only the beginning of the newest generation of filmmakers’ efforts to honor the history of Sudanese cinema while embracing the new technologies, like streaming video, that allow for more opportunities and wider distribution.
Sudanese cinema has been in the spotlight for the last few years and several widely successful films have gained acclaim around the world. In 2019, filmmaker Suhaib Gasmelbari released the documentary, Talking about Trees, a story about four retired Sudanese filmmakers, the decline of cinema in Sudan, and their attempt to revive it facing decades of censorship. The doc went on to win awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and was screened at other international festivals as well. That same year at the festival, Marwa Zein’s documentary, Khartoum Offside, the story of the first Sudanese women’s soccer team in Khartoum, premiered and won numerous awards. In 2020, for the first time ever, Sudan submitted a film to the Academy Awards for Best International Feature. Unfortunately it was not nominated. However, the notable feature film You Will Die at Twenty by Amjad Abu Alala still garnered much recognition and is now available to stream on Netflix as part of their Celebrating Arab Cinema collection, a collaborative effort supported by the Arab Film Media Institute (AFMI). Last year, filmmaker Suzannah Mirghani, who has been making short films since 2011, became internationally known through her sixth short film Al-Sit, which went on to win 23 awards including three Academy Award qualifying prizes. Al-Sit, a story of a young woman’s self determination in the face of an arranged marriage, was also featured in the 2021 Arab Film Festival by AFMI.
In the face of the pandemic, new ways of viewing films have risen out of the need to adapt to COVID protocols and ensure safety. In 2021, the British Council in Khartoum, with collaboration from local sponsors, organized a film festival for both European and Sudanese movies at an outdoor, drive-in cinema space to encourage social distancing and precautionary Covid measures. The future of film everywhere is uncertain, as traditional modes of viewership are being altered, but in Sudan, there are already engaging efforts working to resolve the years of censorship and forgotten films by reimagining how viewership and filmmaking can continue to evolve together in a new age.
From the 70s, until only recently, audiences in Sudan were watching stories of other countries and foreign cultures. Many Bollywood and Egyptian films were screened in that time as efforts from the government to suppress internal production of the arts, dominated the cinema industry in Sudan. In the short couple of years since the fall of Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan has only begun to make up for the lost time that their arts industry has suffered from a 30 year autocratic regime, stifled by censorship and authoritarian rule. The pandemic furthermore stunted the revival of media production, specifically in the film industry. That is now changing as the future of filmmakers emerges from arts education and film programming available in Sudan, specifically for youth. The Sudanese people have already begun to gain recognition for their work expressing their self-determination, acknowledging that there is much of Sudan’s stories that have yet to be told.
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