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MCA: Not Only Dinosaurs Go Extinct

“Build it, we will
that of which
we dream
day after day after day...
in where there is a bastille
let a hospital prevail
let a bird not a gunshot
fly over a fountain
in the merriest of play
with kids
in kindergarten..”

On The First Sudan Independent Film Festival

A Hundred Years of Viewing in My Country

In his memoirs My Life in Cinema, the late filmmaker Jadallah Jubara , tells a story that happened while they were screening a movie on a coarse piece of cloth by the river bank in a remote village. While people squatted on the sand fascinated by this piece of cloth that had on it live pictures and sound, came this villager from behind and saw a roaring lion heading toward him. With all his might, the man threw his seasoned spear piercing the 'screen' and causing the onlookers to flee both from the lion and the unaccounted for attack by a spear. They were as if wondering, a roaring line and a spear coming out of that piece of cloth! In a matter of minutes the ripped 'screem' was sewed up and the audience resumed the inebriating pleasure of watching without reproach or conviction.

But who would patch up those holes that afflicted our cinema screens, be they made of cloth or white cement walls. It was not a spear, this time, that had penetrated our age-established cinema screens and their continued display of lives for over a century, exactly and not metaphorically. It was the bulldozer of negligence, censorship and totalitarian regimes, that destroyed most of the theaters in Khartoum; turned them into ruins that hurt the eyes of lovers of the noble seventh art.  Every time I pass by the Coliseum theater,  (opened summer 1937) and named as a blessing after the Coliseum of ancient Rome, I turn my head lest I see a hero crucified or a loved one disgraced; a deep wound reopened. For in this theater I got to know people from the corners of the earth with different dispositions. A grandmother in tight jeans drinking beer with her grandchildren, a girl being kissed in public by her friend, a hairstyle which I liked, worn by an undistinguished actor. How splendid were the blessings of seeing! I still comb the remainder of my grey hair like that actor.

A cinema theater in Kosti
You can swear that organisms that went extinct were cinema and dinosaurs. Settled down in the graveyards of my country. In the capital city, Khartoum, and its sister cities there have not been any shows for the last quarter of a century. No cinema theater has survived the demolition! Not a standing stone; a relic of  times once lived in Khartoum. (..Kissing this and every other wall. It is not the walls that have my affections; it is those who lived within the walls.) And what beauties lived within those walls! Tahiya Zarrouk, Soad Hosni, Sophia Loren, Shwaikar, Leila Alawi and Julia Roberts. Beauties from every spectrum and others that adorn the memory and even the realm of oblivion for there is a haste to erase, to blur the events of yesterday, in order to map a new road and every roadway can bear the structure of a movie. But, despite the tyranny of erasure, movies have remained in our minds as the sweetest of memories and the clearest of instances of remote cross-fertilization of peoples, ideas and cultures.

Khartoum newspapers, in their interior pages, would ask the reader: Where would you spend your evening? Then would present to him over thirty attractions in cinema theaters (Wataniya, Coliseum, Banet, Nilein?or maybe Halfaya or Aarda etc.)  It was a time of being connected.

Old entrance ticket to cinema Banet
Every theater had its flavor, its audience and ambiance. Each one had its own architecture that touched the spirit of its frequent spectator; charted its impact on the fabric of his memory- forever! Some climb huge Neem trees outside the walls of the cinema house to watch movies or those who took out their beds and, along with family, watched from the comfort of the roofs of their houses. Free viewing from roofs; from behind tree branches with lights from the screen dancing intensely on the faces in the dark of the night, spreading the impact of the film to others in the nearby who danced to the song in an Indian movie. It was as if this entire side of town of cinema viewers was engaged in a wedding party not just the spectators in the dark lounge that enlighten the heart and the eyes.

Old Coliseum in Khartoum
A reader would review the thirty or so movies and then select a theater to spend his evening. The middle class at that time had a distinct status and earned enough to meet life's demands, accessories and hobbies. (Ayam ya Awad Dakkam) was a famous semi- folk song attributed to the famed late dentist Awad Dakkam who was also known as a social satirist, lamented the passing of those glorious times of joy and glory enjoyed by dwellers of the city of Khartoum when Sudanese families of Copts and Muslims and smaller communities such as Indians, Greeks and Syrians dressed up and wore their best perfumes for a happy night out. Their best guide to pleasant nights would be the wide screen and an assortment of  Indian, American, Romanian and Russian movies-in accordance with patterns of foreign relations or cultural preferences or box office dictates.
But does the love for cinema die? Or does it fall in a long sleep as in the tale of the enchanted princess, to only be awakened by a wondrous elixir concocted by the clever boy?

Three years ago, the poster of a cinema group seemed to prescribe a similar elixir for our sleeping cinema. It had a suggestive dream-like motto: "A Shadow Cannot Be Buried"! This was the banner for the group in its celebration of the centenary of cinema in Sudan. The first time a movie was screened in Sudan was in 1910. The western city Elobayed, also known as the Bride of Sands, was the birthplace of cinema. A century and four years later it was ascertained that A Shadow Cannot Be Buried no matter what control, neglect and commercial gain did to it. The idea of the festival emerged from within this group of young and ambitious people who loved, cared for and studied cinematography and film making. A group haunted by talent and aspiration to build an independent Sudanese cinema led by Talal Afifi who wrote in his article entitled A New Horizon: People Want to See Movies in the booklet of the first Sudan Independent Film Festival-SIFF: "The goal of Sudan Film Factory is to produce independent and alternative films that are not subject to market directives or commercial taste but are bound to their audience, to the pressing issues of life and society in our country. Films that take the human-being as their object and advocate for his cause and express his vision and status".

The group's statement called for a (Cinema that addresses awareness and seeks to develop it through collective effort; that adopts new concepts in film industry and dialogues with the public. Cinema that harnesses its march by rationalization and innovation. Our initiative will work to develop links between the arts. We will not thrive in isolation but rather rely on the experiences of independent cinema in Africa and worldwide as sources of inspiration and knowledge and as partners in cooperation and dialogue.)
For these ambitious goals, the SFF initiated some practical steps, researched during three years, by setting up several training courses, seminars and dialogues aimed at diagnosing the ailments of cinema and problems of film industry, besides tackling issues of censorship, shortages of resources, poor infrastructure and the challenges in the search for new aesthetic and visual concepts free from mimesis and stereotyping.

In this respect, the SFF intends to mine for new ways of expression that establish dialogue between the elements of culture and society in Sudan which extends across the Sahara and Savannah to the Equator.
The group's statement, further recounted on the happy ambitions that, "..the process of training and developing of cinematic conceptual and professional knowledge will remain a key issue in our plan for the future. On top of that, we aspire for SFF to be a cinema operation center; a place of meeting for cinema folks with a visual and archival library for Sudanese and African cinema as well as a screening facility- in short, a school of creativity open to the man on the street." Indeed, SFF was open to the man on the street through its showings which took place in more than five centers and schools in the southern part of Khartoum. 

The Festival Movies

After a long hibernation, the city was awakened to showrooms scattered all around. More than 22 films were showcased with participation from Egypt , Kenya and Ethiopia of which 14 were from Sudan. Different film genres were showed with screening time spanning from five to (Fifty) and 95 minutes (Jews of Egypt 2013)!
The opening with (Faisal Goes West) was great and well-attended. The movie tells the story of a Sudanese family which migrated to the USA in search for a better life and the challenges of a largely different pattern of life that faces this family in many details replete with laughter, sadness and the bitterness of being forced to leave one's own country. The movie poses the question: Is there an alternative to one's home country? The answer is no. Just as America has evolved from a time when events like in Uncle Tom's Cabin took place, why don't we built our own great country? Are we to escape from reality and seek to acquire a nationality that other people had struggled to build? To reap what others sowed; the fruits of systematic life, freedoms and technological advancement? By, God, no! We can learn from them, yes! Refine our experiences and pilgrimage to the bosom that needs us; even if we were to walk barefooted on its earth and breathe dust in its air for nations are built on hardship, not bitter departure. Such was the address of the opening film.
The SIFF was the fruit of years of hard work to create a Sudanese cinema distant from dictations by cinema traders and enemies of consciousness. The festival films were obviously chosen cleverly by these young filmmakers to present their own thoughts dressed as cinema. There is this film (Fifty) by Ibrahim Mursal which does not exceed five minutes but has a great impact on imagination. It follows the journey of a fifty piaster coin.
Studio by Amjad Aboualala, depicts a lone man who goes to a photographer to portray him with a fake family in a photo. The photographer cuts and edits from various photos and the man, finally, comes out with a framed picture of him in the heart of his family. Marwa Zein's , short film Game, is eight minutes of fun with a child imitating her mother. Strangely enough, there is something for the mother to learn from her daughter who is as honest as a mirror. The mother realizes how stiff, dry and indifferent she is and also that she smokes cigarettes for when the child pulled out a cigarette the mother yelled at her. "But, mama I am copying you?" asked the girl innocently. The hall resounded the warm applause.

A variety of movies were offered. In the middle of (Jews of Egypt) the person sitting next to me whispered in amazement: "These people are just like us!" He was referring to the Jews in the movie who danced to the the rhythm of Oum Kalthoum and Darwish and spoke nostalgically from their European diaspora about their past days in Cairo and Alexandria. Other movies included the Egyptian documentary (Elkhroug ela Elnahar) and (Barkat el Sheikh) by the late great movie director Jadalla Jubara.
Have I told you where I usually fix my car? It's at Django's. He is a famous mechanic. Not because he is masterful as a mechanic, which he is, but because he wears a straw hat just like Mexican cowboys. He looks at you from underneath his sombrero just like Django. He swears that he saw all Django movies and that he is able, if destined to do so, to write an honest and true cinematic biography of the man. He would inevitably tell you stories about Django while fixing your car so you don't get bored and you might pay him double the cost. He would bid you goodbye and remain standing while you drive away. On the internal mirror of your car you see him standing behind you. A real Django, with his tall stature and that straw hat.
I will conclude this cinema-inspired narration by telling some personal stories (are we not pleased because we are also heroes when we watch cinema and rejoice and weep with them?) My sister Mahasin saw movies in her childhood. Her eldest daughter of now has not seen anything called cinema. When Mahasin screamed "I want a banana!" it was because the camera made such a zoom-in that movie that the banana appeared as large as a Nubian boat. The hall exploded with laughter at this little girl who sounded so hungry.
My brother Abdul Wahid, when he was a child ( he is now an educational advisor) ran away in the deceased cinema theater of Eldowaim, when he saw a train that derailed and appeared by the magic of cinema to come out of the screen. He gave his back to the screen and only stopped when he reached high up where it was called the loge area (partitioned areas or boxes) where he calmed down and watched the rest of the movie.

I opened this article by a quotation from a popular poem by the famous poet Mahjoub Sharif. I wish he wrote "a cinema in place of the prison". Most cinema houses were demolished and transformed in the capitalist fashion into restaurants and boutiques. The Blue Nile cinema, which was famous for being an elite cinema due to it being within the University of Khartoum, is now a radio station that broadcasts military marches.
This festival revives the memory of those glorious times of watching. The secret of cinema is victory over time; when three hours pass like seconds, like nothing after which the mind wanders into memories and into the future as a beautiful imagination.


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