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Feature Films Notably Absent from Sudanese Cinema

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A picture was taken on December 22, 2014, shows the closed Halfaya Cinema in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Many cinemas in Sudan stand empty after closing their doors because of the economic hardship and government policies after 1989. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ ASHRAF SHAZLY

9sCinema reached Sudan soon after its invention in Europe in the late 19th century. However, more than 100 years later, the country’s relationship with this art form has not progressed much beyond the production of short films, mostly documentaries, with an almost complete absence of feature films.

A decade after the world’s first film screening in Paris in 1895s, a cinematographer arrived in Sudan to make films. In 1910, Swiss filmmaker DM David filmed a fishing trip to Sudan. Pioneering Sudanese filmmaker Kamal Mohamed Ibrahim wrote in his book Cinema in Sudan, Present and Future that the first screening in Sudan was held in the city of al-Abyad in 1911, as part of celebrations marking the completion of the railway project there. In the 1920s, a cinema named Skating Ring in the capital Khartoum began regular screenings of silent films. The audience was mostly made up of British colonial administration personnel and other foreigners. The British rulers then introduced a travelling cinema that toured the country. This was followed in 1930 by the first ‘talkie’.

By the 1980s, the country had 71 cinemas, according to director and film researcher Abdulrahman Najdi. However, this growth came to abrupt halt. Less than two years after the Islamist takeover in 1989, the Sudan Cinema Corporation, which was responsible for importing and distributing films, was terminated and screenings began to slow. By the mid-1990s, almost all cinemas were abandoned. Currently, Sudan has only one functioning cinema, in the Afra Commercial Centre in Khartoum.

Film Production

The Sudanese Cinema Company was established in 1940, producing short musical films with the Egyptian Company for Acting and Cinema. However, the beginning of film production was associated with the creation of the Sudan Film Unit by English colonists in 1949. The unit’s production at the time was limited to promotional, informational and instructional films and the publication of a biweekly film production newspaper.

In 1951, the first Sudanese black and white film – a recording of a song for artist Hassan Attia – was produced. There is no filmography of the Sudan Film Unit’s productions. However, a committee was formed in 1999 to archive 3,564 chapters (ten minutes for each chapter) of films and newspaper issues that had been produced over the previous 50 years.

The Sudan Film Unit was associated with the names of pioneering filmmakers Kamal Mohamed Ibrahim and Jadallah Jubara (1920-2008), , who joined the unit upon inception. They wrote and directed all the unit’s initial films. They also supplied the national cinema archives with dozens of documentaries and feature films over the decades.

In the 1960s, the Department of Film Production was established at the Ministry of Culture. The Sudan Film Unit was incorporated into that department. Moreover, a film unit was established at Sudan Television. Several pioneering filmmakers began to make a name for themselves, including al-Khayyir Hashim, Mohammed Eid Zaki and Rashid Mahdi. In 1972, a cinema section was established at the Department of Culture within the Ministry of Culture and Information.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the second generation of Sudanese filmmakers emerged, most of whom had studied filmmaking in Europe and Egypt. This generation, prominent members of which were Hussein Sharif, Ibrahim Shaddad, Anwar Hashim, al-Tayyib al-Mahdi, Sami al-Sawi and Abdulrahman Najdi, revolutionized filmmaking in Sudan. They established a creative cinema that diverged from the propaganda and instructional films that marked the first years of the Sudan Film Unit. Instead, they produced documentaries and films based on short stories that were rich in aesthetic elements.

In addition to films produced by pioneers such as Shaddad and Jubara, many other documentaries were released, including Modern Sudan by al-Khayyir Hashim, Jaz al-Nar (the Sudanese tradition of stone throwing during the harvest), Tigers Look Better by Hussein Sharif, Circle Around A Stone by al-Sawi and The Zar (possession trance dance ritual believed to facilitate a relationship with the possessing spirit to prevent future occurrences of illness) byr Huriyah Hakim, The Shrine and Four Wives (Raising) the Kids by al- Mahdi.

Feature Films

Only seven feature films have been produced in Sudan. The first was in 1970, when the al-Rashid Studio Company produced Hopes and Dreams, directed by Ibrahim Malassi. This was followed by Tajuj (1982), Blessings of Shaykh (2001) and The Miserable by Jubara, Shuruq (‘sunset’) (1973) and A Journey of Eyes (1983) by Anwar Hashem, , and Justice Above the Law and There is Hope by Abdulrahman Mohammed Abdulrahman. This was in addition to Zein’s Wedding (1976), which was written by and featured Sudanese actors but was produced and directed by a Kuwaiti, Khalid al-Siddiq.

Efforts to produce feature films began early in Sudan, but they were mostly limited to short films, first introduced by Ibrahim and Jubara, with the former producing Homeless Childhood (1952) and The Stricken and the latter producing Tur al-Jar at the Clinic. Other productions followed, including The Dislocation of Amber by Hussein Sharif (1975), The Camel, The Rope and A Man by Shaddad and The Station by al-Mahdi.

Some Sudanese films won prizes at international and regional festivals, including The Shrine, which won the Golden Pyramid Award at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1972. The Earth Moves by Suleiman Mohammed Ibrahim won the gold medal at the Moscow Film Festival in 1979, and Shaddad’s The Camel won the Critics Award at Cannes Film Festival in 1986, the Night Festival Award and the Golden Sword Award at the Damascus Documentary Film Festival.

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Sara Jadallah, the daughter of legendary Sudanese filmmaker Jadallah Jubara, speaks at her house in Khartoum on May 28, 2016. With help from German experts, Sara has started digitizing her father’s entire film collection to create what she believes is Sudan’s first private archive of 15 and 35mm films. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ ASHRAF SHAZLY

Moreover, The Rope by the same director won gold at the Damascus Film Festival the following year, and Jubara’s Tajuj won several prizes in nine international and regional festivals.

Parallel Activities

The development of cinema in Sudan coincided with other cultural and intellectual activities related to filmmaking. The Khartoum Film Society was established in 1957, the Sudanese Cinema Club was established in 1978 and the first issue of Cinema magazine was published by the Ministry of Culture in the same year, followed by Cinema and Society magazine in 1980. In 1989, the Sudanese Film Group was founded with a focus on filmmaking and training.

Absence of Feature Films

In his book Cinema is the Inverted Pyramid of the State, director and film researcher Wajdi Kamel summarizes the main issues facing the production of feature films in Sudan. These include the reluctance of the private sector to invest in the film industry and a tax system that discourages such investment, the collapse of cinemas in the 1990s, the lack of modern hardware and imaging equipment, the dearth of graduates in several specialized areas of filmmaking and strict censorship. These issues, according to Kamel, stem largely from ‘ poor artistic skills and technologies in the few attempts to produce Sudanese long feature films’. He said that those early efforts had not allowed feature films to move beyond the experimental phase, causing them to fail commercially and artistically. As a result, viewers and investors had little appetite to support them.

Industry Decline

In his book The Genesis and Evolution of Documentary Films in Sudan, Nasser al-Tayyib, the last director of the Film Production Department, wrote that filmmaking ‘continued to go well until 1981-1982, after which the state’s interest in cinema started to decline’. After the Islamists came to power in 1989, the collapse of cinema audiences severely harmed the filmmaking industry and parallel cultural activities. The government’s Islamist ideology considered cinema and all other performance arts to be non-Islamic and contrary to Islamic morality. The state terminated the cinema section at the Department of Culture and the film unit at Sudan Television. It also closed down the Sudanese Cinema Club and Cinema magazine. No state financing has been available for filmmaking since 1995 . A number of filmmakers left the country.

Attempts at Revival

The early 21st century saw the establishment and reactivation of a number of entities that sought to revive filmmaking in Sudan. The Sudanese Cinema Club was reinstated in 2001 and the Sudanese Film Group was reestablished. In 2016, the group undertook to reissue Cinema magazine.

Sponsored by the Goethe Institute in Khartoum in 2010, the Sudan Film Factory Project started to train young people on the foundations of the film industry. In 2014, the project became an independent platform for film production and cinema, producing more than 44 films and organizing over 50 training workshops in several areas of filmmaking.

In recent years, other entities interested in making and watching films have emerged, notably the Youth Cinema, the Film Industry Chamber and an initiative to teach filmmaking to children. In 2002, a number of film festivals were organized, reinvigorating the film industry. The Sudan Film Factory has since organized the annual Sudan Independent Film Festival, and the Youth Cinema organizes the Festival of the International Award for Cinema and Arts. This is in addition to the European Film Festival and the Khartoum Arab Film Festival.

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