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In the basements of the Al-Wahda cinema (“unity” in Arabic), Tallal Afifi unrolls film strips covered with dust. In the half-light, he stumbles over old account books and shattered boxes of tickets. Outside, the big screen is stained with gray stains, a few rusty chairs still stand on the stands, converted in places into warehouses of bananas and corn cobs for neighboring grocery stores. For the founder of the Sudan Film Factory, an association that tries to revive film culture in Sudan, the ruins of Al-Wahda are the allegory of an industry “Buried alive”.
Inaugurated in 1974, this open-air theater in the Kober district, in the north of Khartoum, screened Sudanese, Chinese, Korean and Egyptian films. During this golden age, the 16 cinemas in the capital could accommodate more than 40,000 spectators per evening. “Even football didn’t attract so many people. Cinema was part of everyday life, mixing social classes. People met here, argued, flirted, talked about business, before and after the session ”, says the former film critic, a glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes.
“The cinema was considered a threat”
At the time of independence in 1956, Sudan was one of the pioneers of cinema in Africa. Avant-garde Gadallah Gubara made the first African color film in 1955, The Song of Khartoum, a prelude to many Sudanese feature films screened in the following years in the sixty cinemas of the unified Sudan, before the industry fell into disrepair.
Already, under the dictatorship of Gaafar Nimeiry (1969-1985), film productions were tightly controlled by the authorities. “The censors were scrupulous, in the name of preserving community sensitivities”, recalls Tallal Afifi. But the worst was to come. After a brief democratic episode, the military-Islamist coup of 1989, which marked the advent of the reign of Omar Al-Bashir and the National Congress Party, has definitely brought down the curtain on the Sudanese film scene.
“Like all artistic events, the cinema was considered a threat. Bringing the masses together outside of political meetings was not to the taste of the authorities ”, explains the founder of the Sudan Film Factory. The establishment of a night curfew from 1989 to 1995 signed the death sentence for open-air theaters, which closed one after the other. Distributors and producers ended up completely deserting the country from 1997 when, another coup de grace, American and European economic sanctions were imposed on the Islamist regime for its policy deemed complacent with regard to terrorism.
“Sudan has lived thirty years of isolation”, asserts Suleiman Ibrahim, a 65-year-old filmmaker trained in Moscow in the 1970s. Most of the directors of his generation went into exile. For those who, like him, have stayed, “The pressure of the regime on our shoulders was enormous, we were constantly in the sights of the security services”, he recalls.
For two years, the renewal
Suleiman Ibrahim’s mustache and his facetious demeanor are not unknown to European moviegoers. With three others “Comrades in misfortune”, they tried to rehabilitate the old cinema in the Thawra district, in the north of Khartoum, without ever obtaining the necessary authorizations. Their futile struggle was immortalized in the film Talking about Trees, directed by Suhaib Gasmelbari, who won the award for best documentary at the Berlin film festival in 2019. As a symbol, it is a film about cinema that has revived the machine.
Great paradox of this stammering awakening, Sudanese films applauded by foreign critics are not shown in Sudan
For two years, a renewal has been at work. Some movies like Khartoum Offside by Marwa Zein, or more recently You will die at 20, by Amjad Abu Alala, have toured international festivals, winning numerous awards. ” These films once again put the country in the spotlight, arousing the curiosity of audiences abroad ”, welcomes Tallal Afifi who participated in the production of Amjad Abu Alala’s film.
For a whole generation of young filmmakers who have cut their teeth more or less clandestinely over the past ten years, the popular uprising that began in December 2018 – leading to the fall of the Al-Bashir regime a few months later – opened a new space of freedoms. «
It was a happy coincidence. It was not the actual revolution that encouraged film production. Most of the directors had already started shooting with the means at hand since the Internet boom. But current events have made it possible to take a new look at these films, giving them depth ”, says Tallal Afifi.
Great paradox of this stammering awakening, Sudanese films applauded by foreign critics are not shown in Sudan. For Tallal Afifi, this is one of the major challenges to be taken up. At 43, this passionate dream of arousing a new popular craze for the seventh art. Invited to the “Filmfest” in Munich in 2008, he was inspired by the Iraqi documentary Life after the Fall by Kasim Abid who won the first prize. “I recognized the Sudan there, with its dictatorship, its two rivers, its religions which kill each other. I said to myself that if this director could shoot with a handheld camera and win a prize, we too had our chance », He explains.
Returning to Khartoum after a brief year of exile in Cairo, he set up the Sudan Film Factory in 2009, with the support of the Goethe Institute. His association, which organizes an independent film festival, has already provided training to more than 300 students in various film professions. This July day, in the premises of the association, located in a villa in a wealthy district of the capital, a hundred people came to attend the screening of two Sudanese films. Sitting in the middle of the garden on rows of plastic chairs, spectators wear the mask. Another hard blow, the Covid-19 epidemic has slowed the pace of projections.
At the end of the screening, Ibrahim Muhammad, one of the directors, performs the show, narrating the film’s background and answering the spectators’ questions. “In Sudan, you have to produce your films on your own. There is no institution capable of financing them. It’s resourcefulness, we train friends in sound recording », says the filmmaker, who started filming six years ago and has now created a small independent production company.
“Interest in Sudanese cinema is growing, but this needs to be translated into investments. We need money to develop local production companies, but especially infrastructure. We are sorely lacking professional studios ”, he concludes.
Due to a lack of resources, this new Sudanese scene makes more of short films or documentaries. International sanctions, about to be lifted, still make it difficult to purchase spare parts or software updates. Some make the trip by plane to Dubai or Saudi Arabia, their hard drives in their pockets.
Since the fall of Al-Bashir, Ibrahim Muhammad has become optimistic. “We have lived thirty years of emptiness; thirty years of destruction of art; thirty years of brainwashing. The cinema is now seen as haram, inappropriate, useless. We, the directors, play an important role in unraveling everything that the old regime put in place. We can change the looks ”, he hopes, before adding that the revolution “Is still incomplete”.
This young director had his equipment confiscated while he was covering the peaceful sit-in which was installed in front of the army headquarters in April 2019. He deplores the presence of many generals of the previous regime in the instances of transition. “For months, everyone improvised as a director. Art was everywhere. We have so many hidden stories to reveal, to put into pictures ”, he dreams. For this new generation of lovers of the seventh art, Sudanese cinema has started up again and nothing will be able to stop it.
The World Africa and his correspondents went to meet African cinemas. Those of a lost golden age as in Ivory Coast or Algeria where, a few decades ago, we thronged in the dark rooms to discover the latest action films or rediscover the classics of national creation.
“Cinemas did not survive the switch from analog to digital” of the early 2000s, regrets the Ivorian film critic Yacouba Sangaré. There as elsewhere, the seventh art had to take side roads to continue to reach its audience. Video stores – from VHS tapes to DVDs – have nurtured a generation of moviegoers.
Some today are trying to revive mythical venues and their demanding programming, as in Morocco or Burkina Faso. Others see in the series a new mode of fertile creation. From fans of the Tangier film library to the conservative cinema of Kannywood, in northern Nigeria, they make African cinema today.