Discussions about “Iman”, a Sudanese film based on true events of Sudanese youth joining radical groups, has recently invaded Sudanese social media. After seeing the trailer I got excited and decided that this is the next film to watch. The selection of the screening locations, and the quality of the cinematography work in the film were all things that I truly appreciated about it at the beginning. So on the 22nd of August, on the rooftop of Goethe Institute, I was among the audience that watched “Iman”.
The film starts with a scene of a mother who is hysterical about her missing daughter, jumping quickly to another scene of a phone call between the panicking mother and a government officer, informing her that her daughter has joined a terrorist group. Well, I was shocked with this beginning. The mother’s reaction was well articulated with her acting, but the ease of discovering that the daughter has joined a terrorist group was not so realistic to me. As far as I know from the many stories exchanged with friends and acquaintances, the process of confirming the news that a missed person has truly joined a terrorist group can be long drawn, exhausting and complicated. Each story that I have heard was different and special in its own ways, but there was never one with this quick and easy confirmation about someone joining a radical group. Everyone describes how long the process is and how difficult it is to confirm the information from authority, friends of the missing person or from the missing person themselves in the rare occasion that there is any contact between the family and the missing person. Filmmakers may justify such brisk events by stating that this is only the introductory scene, and more dramatic plots are kept for the remainder of the film where four characters are involved in radical groups in various ways. After all, the film is inspired by true stories, but it is fictional. However, my only problem was how weak the introductory scene went into depicting the Sudanese experience of sons and daughters joining terrorist groups. Many scenes in the film had the same problem; lack of the special Sudanese essence. For example, in the basement scene, you can swear that this is only a Sudanese equivalent of some Mafia meeting, a copy that does not transfer the unique Sudanese element. If it was not for the word “Kafer” (infidel) in the middle of the dialogue, you would have thought this was a mafia meeting – the Soug Arabi branch!
The film continues to show the stories of young people. We learn about Hema, a young man who grew up in the West, who collides with different cultures on campus inside Sudan. He is faced with the openness of the university music band and by contrast the conservative football team. Although this part is also, in my opinion, far from the reality of Sudanese universities, it is one of the most fun parts of the film. This is perhaps because the lack of representation of the Sudanese culture is offset by the wonderful music saturated with Sudanese identity.
Image Credit: UNDP
Truth be told, what was special –and disappointing- about the film was the universality of its message. Viewers from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds can relate to the story, but at the same time the Sudanese angle is missing. That’s something that is considered great from the international perspective, but limiting for the local side. Throughout the film I searched and unfortunately did not find the small details that would have made me feel the story is Sudanese. I know that we have not yet created a visual or audio identity in the media to demand its presence on the silver screen, but the characters in the film “Iman” lack the realism that characterizes influential films. For example, I wanted to see a scene that reflects issues that are uniquely Sudanese; such as the contradiction of how Sudanese young women are joining religious extremist groups with their male “friends” or how some families defend terrorist groups during family gatherings and discussions but later condemn how Sudanese youth are joining these groups. Such depictions could have enriched the story and added another dimension to the characters. The filmmakers may have wanted to do so in the “scream” scene after Iman’s mother came back from a wedding she attended as an attempt to preserve their social image after Iman’s disappearance. This discrepancy mirrored reality, but still did not leave the desired effect because of the lack of adequate drama build-up.
One of the most remarkable discoveries in this film is the presence of distinctive acting skills in Sudan. I did not feel for a moment that the actors and actresses were amateurs. This was especially true for the role of “Genina” played by Natalia Yaqub; the actress played her part with great honesty and spontaneity.
Regardless of all criticism about the lack of the Sudanese element, the film is a visual masterpiece, featuring well chosen locations and skillful actors and actresses. After the film ended, the roof of the Goethe Institute was filled with applause from the audience and comments were heard about feelings of pride and happiness at the current cinematic revival in Sudan.
Avid film lovers exert a lot of pressure on contemporary Sudanese filmmakers. Perhaps due to the lack of productions, we focus on one film and expect it to bring us everything that Sudan represents on the screen. Although unrealistic, we have the right to hope that the next production will bear a small part of the Sudanese spirit and reflect our streets so we can leave a distinctive footprint in the world of cinema.