Sudanese women are no strangers to cinema; both in the directorial seat and prominent production and acting roles. In modern Sudanese cinema there are icons such as Sara Jad Allah Gubara and Taghrid Sanhoury, young up and coming filmmakers such as Magda Nasr El Dine, Elaf ElKany, Afraa Saad, Reem Gaafar, Mihera Salim and many more who’ve created award winning films that paved the way for many more to follow. The women in Sudanese cinema solidified our understanding of issues presented from a different point of view, contrasting the predominantly male-led industry.
Marwa Zein, a multiple award winning director and the maker of “Khartoum Offside” made headlines in February 2019 after being selected for screening the film at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale). The film garnered critical acclaim for exploring an unusual topic; female soccer players in Sudan. Sudan’s reputation as a heavily conservative society ruled by Sharia law for more than 30 years precedes it, sparking interest in the players’ ability to exist within such strict laws.
Other Sudanese films screened at Berlinale were The Tomb and the Station by Mehdi Mehdi, It Still Rotates by Suliman ElNour and three films by Ibrahim Shaddad; The Hunting Party, the Rape and the Camel. The crown jewel of the Sudanese films screened this year was Suhaib GasmAlbari’s film “Talking about Trees” which won the Glashütte Original Documentary Award.
Marwa’s journey as a filmmaker was essential in finding the topic, exploring it then pursuing its completion for almost 5 long years. In this interview we meet Marwa, the filmmaker, the researcher, the Sudanese woman with multiple identity and heritage questions and queries that shaped her life and career.
Source: Marwa Zein
Andariya: What is your story?
Marwa Zein: My story starts before I was born; my father was sent on a train from Dongola to Egypt to get his education with his uncle (my grandfather’s brother) who was a nurse in Egypt. After completing his degree, he traveled to Yemen then the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to work and live. I was born in KSA in 1985 and issues of identity and belonging were always part of my life. Growing up in KSA in an environment of Wahabism and confinement piqued my interest about diverse issues around me; especially when I traveled to Egypt during the summer holidays and saw a distinct life from my usual one. Summers in 'Almarai', sans-serif !important were important because I bought my books from there and went to the cinema, unlike in KSA.
I sensed our otherness in KSA and Egypt. I was always Sudanese but didn’t know what it was like; all I knew was what people told me about it. It was an intangible identity. My mother is half Sudanese half Egyptian and moved my sisters and me to Egypt so my older sister can study there, because she couldn’t attend a university in KSA due to the alien laws at the time. When we moved, I could sense Egypt’s transition, as more conservative streams were overtaking normal life. I had a lot of things to say about the imperceptible things occurring and I wanted to express myself but had no idea how to.
Andariya: How did that “otherness” transcend into filmmaking?
Marwa Zein: I was aware about my position as an “other” and my parents pressured me to strive for excellence. I got a job when I was studying secondary school and I liked that experience. Then I enrolled into chemical engineering for three years, because my dream of studying art was not accepted by my father. I was working during my engineering years to join the Higher Institute of Cinema as one of 6 people from a pool of about 60,000 applicants.
I was miraculously accepted after studying films, books, theory and critique laboriously to qualify, but for a whole year I hid my enrollment from my parents. I had to navigate murky waters to enter, and I’m grateful to the professors who understood my passion and my need to express myself. I had to pay £300 and it was unimaginable to have that kind of money at the time. So to keep myself enrolled, I worked so many jobs in sales and administration to make ends meet, especially that my parents did not support me and kicked me out once they knew I transferred to the Institute. My journey till then was solidified with the belief of finding myself in a better place and doing better eventually. I’m grateful to everyone I met in those 33 years, even the evil ones because the scars and pains are important for our journeys and it builds our strength and opens us up to fuel us to reach a better state.
Source: Marwa Zein
Andariya: How did you transition after graduating?
Marwa Zein: Within and after the Cinema Institute I worked as a director’s assistant to many amazing directors like Hala Khalil, Khairy Bishara and Dawoud Abdel Sayed. During my studies I also created films, and since the 2nd film I began to get invitations to screen my films at international festivals. The first invitation was from a festival in France in 2008 to screen my film Randa Shaath about the Palestinian-Egyptian filmmaker. I then realized how important traveling is to enable me to open more horizons as a person and filmmaker.
Andariya: How did you start Khartoum Offside?
Marwa Zein: I finally visited Sudan for the first time in 2010 after finishing my studies and living in Lebanon for a while and working there. I met a lot of Sudanese immigrants and refugees in both Egypt and Lebanon, working and living there until they could relocate to the West. It was through literature and Stella Gaitano in particular that I eventually went to Sudan, to the Southern part in what is now the Republic of South Sudan.
I went to South Sudan and worked as a correspondent during the time of secession in 2010 and 2011. I started facing some issues due to being a Sudanese with an Egyptian accent and I was kicked out in July 2012. I didn’t want to leave at all; I wanted to start my life there. I left to 'Almarai', sans-serif !important shattered and broke and took some time to recover. I eventually got back on my feet, started working and making some money, then one day I got a call in 2014 to make a 5 minute film about women in soccer in Sudan. I was married at the time and I consulted my partner and he supported my decision to do this project.
I was supposed to be there for a week but stayed 3 months. It was the first time I went to Sudan and I came back with depression and so much sadness. I was unable to express how I felt. I was detained twice while filming and the horror of facing that and the fact that I came back broke to 'Almarai', sans-serif !important drained me. I felt that I was in a hole and had no idea how to come out; I was supposed to be a producer and director and still manage to find a way to bail myself out when detained to finish this project.
I needed to make a decision about this project and I took the option of working hard on my issues and figured that this film will be hard to finish. It was indeed such a deep journey with many important milestones and people who had a strong impact on the process. The output was to become a documentary, so we had to be flexible and expected so much of the story to be revealed through people, life, destiny and more. I remained patient for 4 years going from Sudan to Egypt then Sudan and France. I remained homeless with a bag and hard disk roaming around trying to finish this film. Producing a film in these circumstances and being unable to find a channel or entity that can facilitate yet not have their own agenda has been a tremendously difficult journey. I bought my freedom so this film can come out as pure as possible; framed by my values and ethics, without intervention even with funding and co-production. This film is personal to me even though it’s about women in soccer, but it stands for me.
Andariya: In what ways is Khartoum Offside personal?
Marwa Zein: I used to play soccer in Mecca when I was younger. This film made me dig into why women are frowned upon in sports; which further led me to study religion then spirituality and mindfulness. I studied heritage and history and why we’re a third world country when there are first world countries on a different development tangent. Through the girls whose stories shape the film, I saw the challenges football presents in their lives and with their families and society at large. The issues revealed by the different dynamics touched me and my own challenges and standing up for what I believe with my family and society.
None of my films are impersonal. Even the one I did for the Culture Resource about the notion of an inclusive Egyptian culture. To me it’s a question of why bother put energy, effort and money into a project if it’s not personal. If it doesn’t stimulate me mentally and spiritually I don’t do it. For many people it may not be apparent, but behind the 75 minutes there are 79 hours of footage that we live through together. I felt that what I was shooting was personal to me on a deeper lever at every stage of the production.
Source: Marwa Zein
Andariya: What is the role of such documentaries?
Marwa Zein: This film shows that we’ve been colonized by our own people post independence. As filmmakers our role is about having clear values that serve the communities and paves the way for people coming after us. By stepping into big platforms such as Berlinale, there is a responsibly to speak our truth and fight our fight. Our region is deeply troubled and if one person is courageous many are probably not ready to listen, thus the role becomes more critical and monumental in its effect.
Our history is written in English; even ancient history is either in French or English. Even our present is provocative because it’s not in our own languages in many circumstances. We’ve been told about ourselves, yet we have to examine history in our language in our own way and narrative. The fact that Africa was divided in the Berlin Conference just over 130 years ago continues to have lucid impact on our lives until today. We need to understand why we gained independence then went into civil war, then armed conflicts in more than one area. It’s not about governance or the government; it is because the colonial powers created the environment for this kind of history to be upon us. Divide and conquer has plundered all of Africa.
As filmmakers I want to have the right to express myself because my predecessors did not have this right; they were caught in a vicious cycle of violence pre-independence and post it. It doesn’t make sense that a country like us would still be in this dire socio-economic and political turmoil until today. Of course there is a global war on us to oppress our narrative and to keep us quiet, subscribing to whatever description is being tailor-made for us. Anyone with a voice and means has a responsibility to raise issues of why we’re at where we are at and reflect our awareness of the various powers that led to where we are – deeply conflicted displaced people walking across the entire earth. We have a right to know the whole truth because we are purposely prevented from realizing it.
The film was supported by the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) and they wanted me to wait until November to premiere it, but the ladies in the film were impatient about screening it because they wanted to see change happen as soon as possible. This is especially the case because the world cup for women is in France this summer. Thus I was keen on showing their story as soon as possible in a large festival so it gets the traction it deserves to support their cause and serve their best interest after their story is highlighted in the film. Berlinale was the first strong festival that could be a great platform for this.
Andariya: Why was the festival interested in Sudan?
Marwa Zein: When there is a film and no direct reaction with the people in a box office or cinema, as independent filmmakers we spark people’s interest through screenings in festivals. That Khartoum Offside was in one of the top three festivals in the world; it presented a huge opportunity to open up to the world without exerting too much effort in promoting and screening the film. It is also a market for other festivals, as they come to it to see what is worth showing in their respective domains.
The festival has been interested in Sudan for the last two years, when they granted Suhaib GasmAlBari a grant to work on his films. Suhaib’s film has been in the works for 7 years and mine has been in the works for 5 years. We met in France while we were both in the editing phase. We both didn’t think we’ll ever finish our films, so finishing and screening both at Berlinale was nothing short of a miracle. It was a monumental decision to put the spot light on Sudan, especially in light of the current uprising, but I’m happy that this happened. There was a strong presence of the Sudanese community at Berlinale this year.
Furthermore, the festival has a history of highlighting countries where cinema is overshadowed. Sudan is a place that produces films that are only celebrated years later. Suhaib’s film is about four filmmakers and the history and struggle of the cinema industry and of course it had elements of the current regime’s impact on the industry. Mine was not supported by the festival, but was a modern take on similar issues and debuted at Berlinale.
Andariya: What are some of your reflections after hitting this milestone?
Marwa Zein: Filmmaking is an ever evolving method affected by time and circumstances. Taking Offside Khartoum as an example, I had to realize early on what my passion is for the story. Whether a fiction or documentary I must have passion for the story as a general rule. The music and the books I read and the films and theater and people I engage with are a huge factor in the creative process. Even meditation, the environment I’m in and solitude are integral elements to my process. My research succeeds and I’m more productive the more able I’m to have a good relationship with my environment and surroundings.
As a filmmaker, the mentors and peers and creative family are important foundations to my process. My older sister is one of those people; she helps me find the best book titles for the topics I’m researching. No one can work alone, there has to be a bunch of well-trusted people who can guide and support us. Why am I doing my Master’s in Germany? Because I want to teach back in Sudan and I know how important it is to have mentors. I need to pay it forward for all those who supported and mentored me and continue to do so.
Time is an important factor, it is an illusion but I was taking it for granted for a long time. One has to plant the seed and nurture it every single day persistently. Of course there were a lot of low moments but I was determined to continue. Each seed can grow if it is nurtured. The Chinese bamboo tree doesn’t grow that much for about 5 years then it shoots up 90 feet in about six weeks. Art is like that, as much as you’re mature and aware the project will be valuable and unique. If one wants an impactful result, they must nurture their work with patience, persistence and hard work.
Andariya: What is next for Offside Khartoum?
Marwa Zein: In March the film will be screened in CPH DOX Film Festival - one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world in Copenhagen, Denmark. In April, it will be screened in Switzerland then in 5 more top film festivals in Europe, Canada and the USA.
The most important plan is for screenings in Sudan and South Sudan.
Follow Khartoum Offside on Facebook to learn more about future screenings.