By Katharina von Schroeder
In a country where the public has hardly any access to visual heritage, historic footage can spark an enlightening and controversial debate.
I met Sara Gadalla for the first time in December 2010, when she invited me to see the endangered heritage of her father, the late pioneer in Sudanese filmmaking Gadalla Gubara. Since his death, Sara had never visited the place where her father built the first and only private cinema studio in Sudan in the 1970s. When we approached the gate, a big signboard with painted letters reading "Studio Gad" had fallen from one of two posts, and hung loosely from the other.
Sara was trying to remount the board, but physical constraints caused by a polio infection at a young age made the task difficult. Inside the sand-colored building stood a historic German Ariflex 35mm film camera, a classic editing table, and projectors, the remaining witnesses to Gadalla Gubara's rich body of work. From the 1940s until 2008, he had produced more than one hundred documentaries, image films, commercials, and home movies, as well as four feature films. A thick layer of dust covered the shelves where the films had led a hidden life over these past decades, stashed away in their tin boxes.
Sara moved toward the editing table, which still held a film roll. She pulled it up to see the little frames against the light.
"Tajooj. This is his best-known feature film. It is a love story in the desert." Coming back to the studio two years after her father had passed away was an extremely emotional moment for her. Her eyes shimmered with tears. Glancing at the shelves she noted, "Everywhere he went, my father always took his camera with him. He said one day we will need these images, because they show our history.” The films were already in a state of severe decay because of Sudan’s relentless heat and dry air.
Preserving this footage bears tremendous importance for people of Sudan. When Gadalla was a young man, Sudan had a very lively cinema industry. During the ‘70s there were more than 60 cinemas – 16 in the capital Khartoum alone – which screened films from all over the world. Mobile cinema units showed films and educational movies even in the most remote villages. (Before Sudan's independence in 1956, Gadalla worked as a projectionist in one of the British Mobile Film Units. During the screenings, he realized how deeply influenced the people got by the film's message and it was there and then that he decided to work in the field of cinema.)
In contrast, under the Islamic regime of Omar al-Bashir, the space for arts in Sudanese society became extremely limited. Moving images from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s are extremely rare to be seen, and those in the National archives are locked away. There is no film archive accessible to the public and even still images from these periods are scattered all over the country. Most cinemas have also closed down under his regime.
As we realized the importance of preserving these images for future generations, we started to look for funding in order to digitize the films. After running into several dead ends ,we finally got lucky. In cooperation with the Berlin-based Arsenal Film and Video Art Institute, we managed to gain the support of the German Foreign Ministry in 2013, which made it possible to digitize a large part of Sara’s father's archive. The original idea was to digitize the materials in Sudan, but the technical process proved too complicated. In the end, the films were sent to Germany, where they were washed, prepared, and scanned to be preserved in a high-resolution digital format. Due to budget restriction, we could save only about 40 hours of materials, slightly over half of the existing archive. After this process, the films and their digital versions were sent back to the Gadalla family.
Then the big moment of the first screening of historic materials in Khartoum came in April 2015. We selected one of the most unique works of Gadalla as the first part of the screening: The uncompleted feature film Viva Sara!, the incredible life story of his daughter, whom I had worked with throughout this process.
When Sara was infected with polio as a two-year-old, the doctor recommended that she swim in order to strengthen the muscles in her paralyzed leg. After that prescription, her father took her to a pool every day. Through this training, Sara not only overcame her handicap, but became one of the most accomplished female swimmers in Sudan. She had won several national competitions before participating in the 12-hour race from Capri to Napoli. Viva Sara! focuses on this race.
The film not only generated strong emotional responses, but also sparked an intense debate about the situation of women in Sudan. There was a sincere feeling of pride among the audience, that Sara – as a Sudanese woman – had the strength to realize her dream. A lady from Bahrain said that Sara's success was not only an inspiration to Sudanese women, but also for women across the Arab world to pursue their personal goals. One other lady even stood up after the last scene to sing a gratitude song for Sara.
In the film, Sara was wearing a knee-long dress on land and a normal swimsuit during the race — an unthinkable sight in a country heavily influenced by conservative cultural norms. Some people mentioned that many families today didn't accept anymore the idea, that their daughters take swimming classes. It became clear, that norms for the appropriate behavior and clothing of women had changed over the last decades. Nevertheless, there was wide agreement that Sara could be seen as a role model for women in the country.
In the second part of the screening, we showed commercials from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Scored with some jazzy background music, the commercials amused the audience, just like old commercials tend to do anywhere around the world. But more importantly, they also showed the Khartoum and Sudan of the past.
Screening of the commercials led to another very interesting discussion about social developments in the country. Some young people commented that they didn't have any idea what Khartoum was like back in those days, making jokes about the products advertised in the commercials that had vanished long time ago. The older generation countered: "Don't talk like that, I am not dead yet. This is my youth!" One could sense that there seems to be a gap between the generations in Sudan. The people who lived before the coup d'etat of the current regime in 1989 experienced a very different time in Sudan, than those who were born after that. The footage started an exchange between the generations about their perspectives on the society.
For Sara, the Gadalla family, and the entire team working on resuscitating Gadalla Gubara’s films, this first screening showed the potential of their dream: it is our hope to host a mobile cinema tour in Sudan, just like Gadalla once did. We hope to screen this footage to people who otherwise have no chance to learn about their country's history. We would like to document the reactions and discussions, because the images of the past spark a relevant debate about the life of today.
Katharina von Schroeder is a documentary filmmaker . She has produced and directed documentary films in countries such as Russia, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Nigeria. Her recent film We Were Rebels won "Best Documentary" at Brooklyn Film Festival and the German TV Award, "Grimme Preis" 2015.
[Photo by Nadja Korinth]