“Thanks to El Gouna Film Festival, thanks to Intishal Al Tamimi the festival director, and thanks to my mother who used to keep the film material in a safe place when it was unsafe to shoot without state permission. She was my first assistant!”
Thus Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari receiving the El Gouna Golden Star for Best Documentary for his feature Talking About Trees (2019), for which he also won the Best Arab Talent award by the prestigious Variety Magazine at El Gouna. The story of four older Sudanese filmmakers battling to bring cinema back to Sudan who establish a Sudanese Film Club, it shows how, despite strong resistance, they succeed, drawing attention to Sudanese film history by touring the streets and slums of the country.
El Gouna was an opportunity for Gasmelbari to make contact with the Arab audience, he says, since previous screenings had taken place in European cities with few Arabs in the theatre. It was also among the sources of support in postproduction: “I am grateful for this festival and for its director Intishal Al Tamimi, who was very supportive on the personal level. Whenever I lost faith in my project he’d be there with his positive energy.”
Gasmelbari started thinking about the project on his return from film studies abroad. His frustrations while trying to make a narrative film in a country “where there is very limited space for freedom” was counterbalanced by meeting the four pioneer filmmakers “who welcomed me and provided me with dozens of resources out of their productions and their writings on cinema. I was astonished with all that I could see and read. That is where the real adventure began”.
He accompanied them on their mission – to share cinema with the audience whatever the circumstances, which was his “ultimate motivation”. Before Talking About Trees, Gasmelbari made a short film, The Forgotten Films of Sudan, on the closely related topic of the Sudanese film archive centred on two “guardians of film history”, Benjamin and Awad, representing North and South Sudan, respectively. When Talking About Trees was selected to participate in the 2019 Berlinale Panorama (where it won the Best Documentary Award as well as audience award), Gasmelbari realised it would not “share the fate of the incomplete narrative project” and started “a race against time” to finalise it in time for the festival.
A certain, fast flavour may come from Gasmelbari’s experience as a journalist, which taught him how to ask questions, investigate issues and build a story under the toughest circumstances. But the filmmaker feels journalism is the wrong model for filmmaking: “I like to take my time. I don’t want to make many films. My dream is to make a few, personal films, films that I feel have to be made.” Gasmelbari feels his film is less about the history of Sudanese cinema than about four people who struggle for their art, about “the desire to continue in the present and not about digging in the past”.
They afford a definition of success: “Success is not about being a star. It is more about that commitment to continuity.” Still, Gasmelbari’s work is about memory, the memory of the Sudanese people, formed by art and facing huge attempts at erasure under the former regime, deposed in the course of a popular uprising this year. “I did not want to say that the past is beautiful and the present is ugly. I just wanted to show how some people are able to resist ugliness.” Saving Sudan’s cinematic archive, Gasmelbari feels, is “essential to building the new country. It is not a nostalgic desire, but reviewing, rereading and analysing this archive, including the formal narrative imposed on artists and their works and against their manoeuvres, is very important”.
At the beginning of the project Gasmelbari had to play multiple roles. He was cinematographer, editor, producer, even the driver. “Funding opportunities when they happen at all are rare, so so I had to have a preliminary version of the film to seek funds. I had to work by myself where the team of the film was none but its main characters. The four characters helped me to face the restrictions, financial or logistic, especially when we were shooting without permission which was a big risk.”
Depending on foreign funding resources was essential although a challenging task: “A filmmaker needs to be patient in his struggle to secure the financial needs of his film. They have to defend their point of view against that of distributors and the producers. They have to find a way to defend their rights to their films especially when they financially and physically contribute to their film’s production as in my case with me.”
A meaningful part of any production must come from its local resources, but local money with an interest in art and culture is rare. “Maybe if the current moment brings about further freedoms, businessmen could find it profitable to invest in cinema.” It’s clear the Sudanese audience is pining for cinema after 30 years of deprivation. “In recent years several attempts were made to bring back the tradition of film screenings. The protagonists of my film are an example. I believe Sudanese people are readier now than at any other time for art, for every kind of art. Freedom is the keyword.”
He has not been alone. 2019 has been a very important year for the Sudanese people in every way. Three Sudanese feature films were produced in one year: You Will Die At 20 by Amjad Abu Alala, Khartoum Offside by Marwa Zaien, and Talking about Trees. All were produced under very tough circumstances. And, though exceptional and positive, it is too early to tell whether this is the start of a new cinematic movement in Sudan: “These are very individual initiatives with different production journeys. The important thing is that these films and their filmmakers widened the scope of what people can do especially with the warm welcoming these films had everywhere.”
Having altered the circumstances and the atmosphere, these films gave way to “a kind of pride in Sudanese cinema but the real results will come up in the future. There is a need for a different mechanism where a film industry can grow and develop. There should be a space where the freedom to make films is guaranteed and where a filmmaker could earn his living from his work in cinema.”
You will Die At Twenty
“I present my award to Sudan” was the most resounding statement made by Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala while he received the El Gouna Golden Star for Best Narrative Film for You Will Die at Twenty. It is the story of Muzamil, whom the village holy man predicts will die at the age of 20 shortly after he is born. Muzamil’s father can’t stand the curse and leaves home, and so Sakina raises him as an overly protective single mother. One day, Muzamil turns 19. This is the second award in one month after the Lion of the Future (Luigi de Laurentiis) Award for Best Debut Feature at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.
“I am very proud to be at El Gouna Film Festival, and to be in Egypt,” Abu Alala went on. “Egypt was part of my project since the beginning. Several phases happened in cooperation with Egyptians including my Egyptian producer Hossam Elouan. I also chose to stay in Egypt for the film editing where I thought I should a stay in a place I love since the editing process would take such a long time. My film editor Heba Othman is also Egyptian… I was a bit afraid of the expectations of the Arab audience,” he admits. “But I believe that we have a beautiful story told by passionate actors and actresses and a patient crew. It deserves to be watched and enjoyed.”
Abu Alala says it was a magnificent feeling when You Will Die At 20 was announced a Lion of the Future winner: “It was a response to 30 years of isolation suffered by Sudan and the Sudanese people.” As proud as he felt of himself and his team, he was proud mainly of Sudan, which made great leaps forward in 2019. “I am proud that my film is part of that unforgettable year for all Sudanese people.” The path to Venice, Toronto, El Gouna and the other festivals was hard going, he explains. “But I know how hard we worked to get there. Making this film was a target in itself. To work with the Pyramid Films distribution company, which distributed Youssef Chahine’s films, was a target. To work with such a great multinational crew was a target.”
The secret is how deeply one believes in one’s dream and how far one is able to let the others, the team, share in it. He had spent 10 years thinking about his first feature film before he found this story by the Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada. “It trapped me. It is my first feature after seven shorts as a director, and another seven shorts as a producer.”
The film was written by Emirati screenwriter Youssef Ibrahim, who despite never having been to Sudan was able to articulate Abu Alala’s vision. “He is a very close friend, and we worked together on two previous films. I trust him and we share a lot.” The production journey was difficult but expected. “As there are no film funds in Sudan, we know that we will depend on co-production with other Arab and foreign resources. If we were to talk about having a film industry in Sudan then at least 30 percent of any film funds should come from Sudan. It needs time but also strategy and hard work.”
It was not easy for him to find trained actors, so most of the cast either have some experience in theatre or don’t have any acting experience at all. “We rehearsed a lot and had long and frequent discussions about every detail.” Shortly before shooting, the actors had two training sessions with expert trainers including the Egyptian actress Salwa Ahmed Ali and the Egyptian star Mahmoud Hemida: “Every member of the team did the best they could.” The untouched Sudanese landscape in the film has rarely been seen, but it is the narrative landscape of the country that is only beginning to be mined: “A country without cinema for such a long time is definitely a land of the untold stories. The Sudanese film scene will show itself in about 10 years.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.