Scratch the surface of the Sudanese film history and you’ll discover a cruel irony: a cultural worker whose purpose was to help his country and its people see and be seen, was rendered blind by the state.
Gadalla headed the Sudanese Film Unit in the years right after country’s independence, making several types of films about the sociocultural and political developments of the newly independent Sudan. He went blind one evening in 1998, when government soldiers went to his private studio and declared that the property belonged to the state from that time on. The condition [hysterical blindness] came upon him on reading the official letter that the soldiers had presented.
He would be jailed right afterwards, for fighting the order; and, on his return, encouraged and aided by his daughter, Sara Gubara, he went on to make films and write scripts right up until he died – still blind – aged 87.
Terrible as this turn of events is, it provides a somewhat heartening metaphor: the filmmakers will make their films, notwithstanding vicious consequences brought on by an antagonistic government.
Such tenacity is witnessed today in the endeavours of another Sudanese filmmaker, Ibrahim “Snoopy” Ahmed, who gained his nickname back in the day when he used to be a rapper. Like the US emcee Snoop Dogg, he had a thin face and wore his hair in braids. Now focused on the cinematic, Snoopy’s latest film release is Journey to Kenya, a half hour documentary that chronicles an incredible six-day road trip of a team from Muqatel Training Centre, the only Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym in Sudan. The journey sees them travel from Sudan through Ethiopia to take part in a tournament in Kenya. This route to Kenya turned out to be extremely gruelling, resulting in situations, in Nairobi, where Snoopy was too hungry or dizzy to even film shots he thought were significant.
In the chat that follows, he answers a few questions about the politics and realities of making film in Sudan, as well as his forthcoming web series, tentatively titled Shadows of The West.
Let’s start with your latest film, Journey to Kenya, which happens to be my introduction to your work. Could you share some words about the making of the film?
Me and Mohammed Al-Munir, the guy responsible for the Jiu Jitsu club, have been working together since, like, 2016, to support the venue. So, one time he told me we’re going to Kenya, to a tournament. I hesitated at the beginning, because it sounded, a bit creepy. I didn’t have enough money to go on a road trip all the way to Kenya, but eventually I was like: why not? And then, about two or three days before the trip, he called again and said everything is ready, and I told him I didn’t want to go anymore because I had a lot of work to do back in Sudan, but he succeeded in persuading me. The film was initially supposed to be just a 5-minute highlight video, but after I came back to Sudan, I looked at the data and the raw footage and I had this idea of turning it into a documentary. So, I went on to go shoot the guys at the club ¬– doing these interviews with them about the trip. I put it all in one documentary, which turned out to be a great one.
Which also won you an award…
Yes, the Grand Jury Prize at the Sudanese Independent Film Festival.
That was a really dope thing for me to find out, the existence of such a festival. Could you speak a bit about the political backdrop in Sudan and how this affects or influences you and your work?
The situation out here definitely has a lot of influence on filmmaking. On a personal level, for instance, I get arrested almost every other time I go out to film or do a story. And this is even aside from the times I was covering the revolution. I could even be just shooting a beautiful landscape and ordinary stuff like that. They just feel like this guy is going to expose their dirty work, because the old regime was basically just killing people. I just want to reflect what’s happening in Sudan, but they don’t understand that. To them just because you have a camera, it means you’re going to expose something that’s not meant to be shown to the whole world. And I’ve been arrested so many times because of this.
Speaking of the revolution… You made a very short documentary of a young Sudanese man reflecting on last year’s event. On YouTube, one of the comments under this documentary says that the language used in there shouldn’t have been English, since the message was for Sudanese people, many of who do not understand English. It had me thinking about the issue of language, which African filmmakers – from the OG Ousmane Sembène to filmmakers of today like Tapiwa Gambura – have had to contend with. I’ve also noticed, that you don’t particularly stick to one language in your work. How do you deal with language in your filmmaking?
Yes, to reach the majority of Sudanese, a mother language should be used. But I also don’t want just Sudanese to watch my films. You want a wider population of the world to understand what people are saying, and that international language happens to be English.
What if someone argued that you could have your characters speak in the mother language(s) of Sudan, and then have subtitles in English?
You see, another thing is that I’ve been working mainly in documentary so far, and I do not decide what languages people speak in. I can’t tell them what to say and what not to say. I just let them feel free to talk however they want to talk. That is the main thing for me. But also, because the community of film in Sudan is really limited, even if you want to reach everyone, it’s rather difficult. I don’t know if this makes sense, but, like, for me, if I want to reach a wider audience, to communicate with others abroad and around the world, the language is English.
You’re currently at work on a web series about armed conflicts. What are your motivations for telling this particular story, and why did you settle on the web series format to disseminate it?
The motivation comes from the fact that we’ve been living in the biggest war since the 1950s. Till today. And I think it’s time for someone to talk about this war; and, specifically, the period between 2003 to now with this Darfur conflict that keeps going on and on. I thought that someone should bring it to the screen in a cool, narrative fiction form other than documentary. I feel like once it’s a documentary people’s disposition to it is that it’s going to be just info dumping with barely any viewing pleasure. There’s already lots of documentaries about Darfur on YouTube. I think that people tend to watch narrative fiction more than documentary films, and that’s why I want to shift from the documentary style with this story, without losing the facts and the real-life stories that have happened in Sudan and in other parts of the continent. I’m purposefully trying to tell this story of armed conflicts in a more heroic, more revolutionary way. My main hope is that the show reaches a large number of people, especially around Africa, and inspires them.
I wonder if you have any fears going into the shooting stage, considering the authorities’ history of hostile, and sometimes violent, reactions to such undertakings?
Definitely. I have lots of fears. Mainly because the antagonist is the government and the militias and all the forces that are killing people. And because it’s not one side of the government, but both sides. So I’m stuck in the middle, portraying the government on one side and on the other hand, I’m portraying the rebel and armed forces. I basically don’t have any back up which is why I get a bit concerned. But at the end of the day, I’m a filmmaker. And something that puts me at ease, sometimes, is that I’m doing this for the people. As long as you’ve got your people’s back, you don’t have to worry, because no matter what happens, you’re going to get justice at the end of the day, should anything bad happen to you.
Also, the initial stages of the series subliminally attack the old regime, and I don’t have to be concerned about them because they’re already fallen. Everyone hates them. I want the series to depict what people’s feelings have been during the regime’s thirty years. I know that a lot of people couldn’t get their justice, and I’m hoping that at least when they watch this show, it brings some satisfaction. That’s the main thing the series wants people to feel, that justice will be served at the end of the day.
What timelines are you working with?
In my mind, I should start shooting come January. Until then I’ll be developing the concept and the story, finding sponsors, and solidifying plans on how to execute the whole thing. I’ll start by shooting episode one. Afterwards, I’ll be applying for funds because the project will cost a lot of money, considering the standards I have in mind. So, I’ll be applying for funds, after I produce the first episode, to help continue with the remaining seven episodes. It’s going to be a total of eight.
All images courtesy of Snoopy.