“We are proud of this newborn, not because it has reached the level to which we aspire, but because it is the first building block in a true cinematic renaissance in our beloved Sudan.”
Thus Ibrahim Mallassy, the director of the first Sudanese feature length fiction film Hopes and Dreams (1970) – starring Abdel-Rehim Abdullah and Laila Hassan – promoting his film on Sudanese television at the time. In the same interview, Rashid Mahdi, the film’s producer and director of photography — another pioneer of Sudanese cinema — said in an enthusiastic tone, “we have taken the first step, but we are determined, God willing, to go to perfection, no matter the challenges.”
A few days before the premiere of Mohamed Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia, the first Sudanese film to be officially selected for Cannes, Mahdi’s words could not be more relevant. Asked about the name of the film in 2002, when he was nearly 80, Mahdi said: “We aspired to express the dreams and aspirations of the Sudanese people.” So do the makers of Goodbye Julia. It is the story of Sudanese film since independence: aspiring to produce a full-length film, only to be interrupted by unforeseen developments.
Cinema reached Sudan in the early 20th century, a decade after the world’s first film screening in Paris in 1895. The film industry in Sudan went through a colonial stage (1898-1956), a post-independence stage (mid 1950s-mid 1980s) before practically disappearing until revival efforts bore fruit in the second decade of the millennium. With the ups and downs of the filmmaking movement in Sudan, documentaries and short films have often dominated the scene. Fewer than 10 feature-length fiction films have been produced, but they all reflect the ambition and optimism of Hopes and Dreams.
Mahdi (1923-2008), who established the first photo studio in Sudan, Rashid Studio, in the city of Atbara, was the principal force behind that film. Rashid Studio produced it. According to the French photographer Claude Iverné, founder of a large archive of photographs dedicated to this Golden Age photography in Sudan, Mahdi was “the most sophisticated and one of the major African photographers of the 20th century.”
Mahdi left behind more than four million negatives, which date from the 1940s onwards, and they include black and white photos of the premiere screening of Hopes and Dreams at the national cinema in Omdurman in 1970, a hugely populous screening.
For his part Anwar Hashem (1949-2012) directed two feature length fiction films, in addition to 64 shorts, including documentaries: Sunset (1973) and A Journey of Eyes (1983), the latter a romantic drama about Sudanese students in Cairo featuring such Egyptian stars as Somaya Al-Alfi, Amin Al-Heneidi, Nagwa Fouad, and Mahmoud Al-Meligi as well as the Sudanese singer Salah Ibn Al-Badia and the Tunisian singer Lotfi Bouchnak. Hashem, a 1971 graduate of the Higher Institute of Cinema in Cairo, was one of the earliest Sudanese directors to study filmmaking here. On the completion of Sunset its release was blocked by the Sudanese authorities, so it was never screened. Though A Journey of Eyes was a success, lack of funding and censorship drove Hashem to focus on short documentaries, many of which won awards.
Gadallah Gubara (1920-2008), one of Sudan’s best-known filmmakers the world over. He was educated in Cyprus, Cairo and the United States, where he studied directing at the University of Southern California, and when he returned to Sudan, he contributed to establishing the first film production unit in the early 1940s. Gubara directed over 100 documentaries in which he documented the landmarks of Sudan and the daily life of its citizens. One of them, Khartoum (1960), was the first colour film in the history of Sudanese cinema, and it captures a city that has now completely vanished.
In the late 1970s Gubara directed his fiction debut, Tajouj (1977), his most celebrated film. It is a historical story adapted from a Sudanese folk tale about the forbidden love of two people belonging to different tribes. It won the Nefertiti Statue at Cairo International Film Festival in 1982 as well as prizes in Alexandria, Ouagadougou, Tehran, Addis Ababa, Berlin, Moscow, Cannes and Carthage. Gubara’s second feature length fiction film was The Sheikh’s Blessing (1997), starring Mohamed Khairi Ahmed, Makki Sanada, Nahed Hassan, and Awad Seddik, an attack on the widespread practice of witchcraft that exposes its practitioners as exploitative impostors.
Les misérables (2007), Gubara’s third and last feature length fiction film, is an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. Gubara died before it was completed, a task that his daughter Sarah Gubara undertook. Following in her father’s footsteps, Sara subsequently became one of the first woman directors in Sudan. She graduated in 1984 from the animation department in Cairo’s Higher Institute of Cinema. In addition to her short films, she assisted her father, and together they founded what would become the first privately owned film production company in Sudan, Studio Gad. Following the demolition of Studio Gad by the Sudanese government in 2008 after an eight-year legal battle over land ownership, Sara has worked to preserve her cinematic legacy. Between 2014 and 2016, a large part of her father’s filmography was digitised by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, Germany.
Sudanese director and actor Abdulrahman Mohamed Abdulrahman directed two feature length fiction films in the early 1990s, after studying and practising filmmaking in Cairo: There is Hope, and Justice above Law. However, he later focused on documentaries and commercials, and he became well-known for television series. Abdulrahman passed away in 2021, a year after he was appointed director of a television channel in Sudan.
In the last five years, it seems Sudanese cinema has taken on a new role on the global scene, reflecting the political changes that the country went through. Mahdi’s dream is finally coming true. In 2019, You Will Die at 20 by Amjad Abu Alala, the UAE-born Sudanese filmmaker, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and won the Lion of the Future for Best Debut Feature. It then continued to win awards and participate in prestigious festivals around the world. The film is based on a short story by Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada, with a script co-written by Abu Alala and the Emirati writer Youssef Ibrahim. It stars Mustafa Shehata, Mahmoud Elsaraj, Bonna Khalid, Talal Afifi, Amal Mustafa, and Nahed Hassan.
You Will Die at 20 is the story of Muzamil whom the village holy man declares will die aged 20 shortly after he is born. Muzamil’s father can’t stand the curse and leaves home. Sakina raises her son as a single mother, overly protective. One day, Muzamil turns 19 and so begins his journey of fears and aspirations. Although figures from different countries participated in the film’s production, many of the main crew members involved in the production, including actors and actresses, are from Sudan. Its warm reception paved the way for revival of Sudanese cinema after a decades-long hiatus.
Abu Alala is also the main producer of Goodbye Julia by Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani, which will have its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Festival within days. The film takes place before the secession of South Sudan, and is the story of a former singer from the north who seeks redemption for inadvertently causes the death of a southern man by employing his wife as her maid. It stars Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, and Nazar Goma. Sadly the stars of Goodbye Julia are struggling to cross border after border to reach Cannes, leaving behind a city at war. But Mahdi already said it, five decades ago: “We are determined, no matter the challenges.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly