Cinema of Sudan
The cinema of Sudan began with cinematography by the British colonial presence in the early 20th century. After independence in 1956, a vigorous documentary film tradition was established, but financial pressures and discouragement by the Islamist government led to the decline of cinema from the 1990s onwards. Since the 2010s, several initiatives have shown an encouraging revival of filmmaking and public interest in film shows in Sudan.
Cinema in colonial Sudan
Sudan saw some of the earliest filmmaking to take place in the British colonies: John Benett-Stanford, a soldier turned war correspondent, shot footage of British troops in 1898, just before the Battle of Omdurman. This short and silent film was projected and sold in Britain under the title Alarming the Queen's Company of Grenadiers Guards at Omdurman. In 1912, the British colonial authorities made a documentary film of King George V's visit to the country, and screened it in an open-air theatre. During the early years of the century, pioneering filmmakers travelled up the Nile from Cairo to Sudan and beyond, shooting films for curious audiences at home, as in a documentary showing Lord Kitchener inspecting his troops in Khartoum.
In the 1920s, Greek immigrants, who had also been among the earliest photographers in Sudan, established movie theaters for silent films, in Khartoum. Other Sudanese businessmen later established the Sudan Cinema Corporation, which opened more cinemas in other cities and distributed imported films in Sudan. The magazine El Fajr had weekly pages on science, literature and cinema.
Cinema from independence up to the 2010s
When Sudan gained independence in 1956, the new authorities established the Sudan Film Unit to make short educational documentaries and newsreels, many of which were shown on mobile cinema trucks.
The first feature-length film made in Sudan was Hopes and Dreams, directed in 1970 by Ibrahim Mallassy in black and white. After that, very few feature films were made, mainly due to lack of funding. Hussein Shariffe, a Sudanese academically trained painter, poet and lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Khartoum University, became also known as a filmmaker from the 70s onwards. In 1973, he was head of the film section in the Ministry of Culture and Information and directed his first film, The Throwing of Fire, a documentary about a ritual in honour of the sun of a tribe in the southern Blue Nile State. This experience prompted him to return to the United Kingdom to study film at the National Film and Television School. Until 1997, Shariffe made several documentaries, for example The Dislocation of Amber, a poetic documentary about the historic port of Suakin on the Red Sea, or Diary in Exile, an account of the life in exile of Sudanese in Egypt. In appreciation of Shariffe's artistic output, the Sudan Independent Film Festival, founded in 2014, is held annually on the anniversary of Shariffe's death.
The Sudanese filmmaker with the most widely ranging work of more than 100 documentaries and newsreels, Gadalla Gubara, also produced a few feature films, most notably the tribal love story Tajouj in 1979. His daughter, Sara Gadalla Gubara, learned film making in Cairo as well as with her father, assisted him in his private film production company called Studio Gad and became the first female filmmaker in Sudan. Sara’s film The Lover of Light (2004) is both a metaphor of Gadalla Gubara and of his interest in bringing social issues to light through filmmaking.
In Khartoum and other cities, more than 70 cinemas showed mainly foreign Indian, Egyptian, American or Italian films, but also news and commercials. Despite the growing number of people who could afford television sets, the popularity of "going to the movies" was considerable, as reflected by Cinema Cinema, a weekly film review show on the government-owned Sudan National Broadcasting Corporation that had started in 1962.
After the military coup of 1989, Sudan's Islamist government, however, suppressed cinema, as well as much of public cultural life. As a consequence, the Sudanese Cinema Company was dissolved and many government-owned movie theaters were neglected or sold off. The old Colosseum Cinema, for example, became part of Khartoum's riot police headquarters. Moving images from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s became extremely rare to be seen, and those in the National archives were locked away. Up to the present, there is no film archive accessible to the public, and even still images from these periods are scattered all over the country. These political restrictions, along with the rise of satellite TV and the Internet, led people to rather watch films in their homes and deprived Sudanese artists of public recognition, funding for the production or distribution of films, and, most of all, freedom of artistic expression.
Enjoying wider margins of expression, some filmmakers of Sudanese origin and living abroad have made films about their country, like British-Sudanese filmmaker Taghreed Elsanhouri. Her documentaries Our Beloved Sudan, All about Darfur, Orphanage of Mygoma or Mother Unknown explore both the complex society in Sudan as well as the film director's views as a member of the important Sudanese diaspora community.
Revival of cinema and movie production since the 2010s
Aided by the introduction of digital film equipment, workshops for a new generation of filmmakers and by international funding or festivals, the 2010s saw several successful initiatives to re-establish cinema activity in Sudan. In 2010, the Sudan Film Factory was founded, and in 2014 the Sudan Independent Film Festival started its annual editions with growing popularity. In 2014, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, who lives both in Sudan and abroad, made an internationally acclaimed documentary film about the ongoing attacks of the Sudanese army on the people in the Nuba mountains. Kuka's film, called Beats of the Antonov, provides an artistic collage about war, music, and identity on Sudan's southern frontiers, and could not be shown in Sudan under the government of the time. In 2015, parts of the film archive of Gadalla Gubara had been digitised by a German-Sudanese film restoration project, and thus these documentaries as well as the feature Tajouj could be shown to new generations in Khartoum as well as abroad.
In 2019, the documentary film Talking about Trees by Souhaib Gasmelbari about the decline of cinema in Sudan won several awards at international festivals. The same year, the fictional story of You Will Die at 20 by Amjad Abu Alala won the Lion of the Future award at the Venice Days, an independent film festival section held in parallel to and in association with the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Another young Sudanese filmmaker, having studied film in Cairo and Germany, is Marwa Zein. Her documentary Khartoum Offside tells the story of the first female soccer team in Khartoum. This film had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum in 2019 and won awards at several international film festivals.
Contemporary Sudanese video films of different genres have also been produced and distributed on the internet. - One group of these self-taught video filmmakers, named Tartar Studio, is based in Cairo and was initiated by a Sudanese medical doctor with creative skills. Among other animated short films, they created a film about Sara Gubara, the daughter of Sudanese film pioneer Gadalla Gubara. Accompanied by her own voice in Arabic, this short video tells the story of how Sara, the first female swimming champion of Sudan, traveled to Naples, Italy, in order to participate in a salt water swimming contest.
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