A committed Sudanese cinematographer, through several documentaries Suhaib Gasmelbari chronicles the struggles undertaken to protect and bring to life his country's cinema. His first internationally award-winning feature film, Talking About Trees, was released in mid-December.
You were born in Sudan in 1979. Do you have any childhood memories of the cinema that was then shown in Khartoum?
I have very few memories of the cinema of that time. There were a lot of open-air cinemas that we sometimes went to as a family, and then with al-Bashir coming to power in 1989 everything changed overnight: those spaces closed after a curfew was put in place, and a whole culture of cinema disappeared. From then on, the only way to see films that were not propaganda was to watch the programme "Cinema" on television. When I could see it without it being cut off by a political speech or a power failure, it was magical. It was these hidden moments that gave me the hunger for images.
How did your taste for the seventh art develop in this context of very limited access to films?
My taste for cinema only really developed after I left Sudan at the age of 16 when my family and I went into exile, as did thousands of other Sudanese: first to the United Arab Emirates – where I graduated from high school – and then to Russia and Egypt. These trips finally allowed me to visit the dark spaces that were cinemas. I arrived in France in 2002: this is where I first went behind the camera. In Paris I went on to study film, which gave me a taste for scriptwriting, and made a short fiction film as an end-of-cycle assignment. Since then I've never stopped filming!
You then went back to your home country to shoot two films: Sudan’s Forgotten Films, released in 2017, and Talking About Trees. The first deals with the conservation of films in Sudan and the second with their distribution. Why have you used the documentary format to address these topics?
What I was interested in was not just telling the facts, in this case the inadequacy of national archives and restrictions on broadcasting. The key was to highlight models of courage – those who fight against this system. Obviously, the impact is greater if these models actually exist, hence the relevance of the documentary.
And then to shoot a work of fiction in Sudan you need state permission. That means pledging not to tarnish the regime’s image and making ethical compromises that I could not accept.
So you made these films secretly?
Completely. Filming took place in Khartoum in extreme conditions because it had to be kept secret from start to finish. When we were spotted by the authorities, we were pretending to be ad makers. The idea was to appear harmless to the regime. And as soon as a sequence was finished, it had to hidden away. The security services could have confiscated my camera and destroyed it. They could also have beaten me, accused me of spying and incarcerated me. This has been the case for several artists. My approach is a form of political commitment – an act of resistance, if you will – in the sense that I undertook forbidden actions. But let us be clear: it is not cinema that is causing revolutions. Heroism in insubordination is on the side of those who have given their lives for democracy.
Talking About Trees revolves around the four pioneers of Sudanese auteur cinema, imprisoned for a time, who are now reopening a cinema in Khartoum. What message did you want to convey by recounting their struggle?
Talking About Trees primarily questions the notion of success with which wealth is usually associated. For these men, success lies elsewhere. Despite the obstacles put in place by the regime, these men are fighting to offer the public a real cinema. These film makers could have made many more films than they did during their careers if they had agreed to exchange their ideals for permission. They didn't. In this, they embody a form of success both as committed artists and as humans. That's what I wanted to show.
You have helped to digitise old works by the Talking About Trees film makers. Is there an urgent need to safeguard Sudan's audiovisual heritage?
The Sudanese film archives represent 13,000 hours of film. They date back to British colonisation and are among the largest in Africa. They are priceless, not so much as aesthetic objects than as evidence – an almost archaeological record. But al-Bashir’s regime wanted to make them go away. By intentionally destroying part of the archives, but also by limiting the funds dedicated to their maintenance. It is imperative to remedy this, as this memory must endure and be shared for educational purposes so as not to repeat past mistakes.
Recently, several Sudanese film makers who shot in Sudan have been rewarded. You yourself received the Audience Award and Best Documentary Award at the 2019 Berlinale for Talking About Trees. Is this evidence of a new boom in Sudanese cinema?
Several years ago, when a Sudanese man asked me what my job was and I replied to him as a film maker, I had the right to laugh! Just because people didn't know there was still a real national cinema industry. Thanks to a few directors, an industry of which we can be proud is emerging and the Sudanese are becoming aware of it. A dialogue is now possible between film makers and the civilian part of the transitional government: it is a big step. But the future of our cinema is tied to the country's political future. However, we are still in an unstable situation. It’s too early to claim victory. We are living in a crucial moment in which directors have a role to play. To avoid going back to the past, they must produce images that replace those promoted by the regime. Images that value other models of life, that have faith in a democratic future.
Talking About Trees, by Suhaib Gasmelbari, was supported by the Aide aux cinémas du monde fund in 20XX. This Institut français programme provides support to foreign film-makers for film projects co-produced with France, whether they be feature-length fiction, animated films or creative documentaries. Find out more about the Aide aux cinémas du monde programme
The film is screened internationally by the Institut français through the Cinematheque Afrique which offers a catalogue of over 1,600 African films from 1960 to the present day. Learn more about the Cinémathèque Afrique
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