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These days Khartoum is buzzing with the Sudan Independent Film Festival which inaugurated its fourth annual edition on January 21st and wraps up on January 27th 2017. The Festival became a staple in the city’s cultural calendar since it began in 2014. The dates of the Festival were chosen to honor the memory of legendary Sudanese filmmaker and artist Hussein Shariffe & curate thematic annual film screenings.

The President of the Festival is Talal Afifi, a filmmaker and curator who also runs the Festival’s organizing institute; the Sudan Film Factory. The Factory is known as the producer of many contemporary films and organizer of dozens of trainings for Sudanese filmmakers. Little is known about The Factory and Festival Executive Director, Elaf AlKanzy, a powerhouse who runs both institutions with ardent energy, meticulousness and vigor. She is a renowned filmmaker in her own right, but in the organization of the Festival, Elaf’s efforts, passion and energy bring the whole thing together to appease thousands of spectators, film enthusiasts and international guests. In this interview, we introduce you to the cornerstone of the Factory & Festival & one of Sudan’s leading women in the cultural scene. 

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Elaf AlKanzy and Talal Afifi at the SIFF 2017 press conference. Image Credit: SIFF 

Andariya: How did you get into filmmaking?

Elaf AlKanzy: Filmmaking was never my interest. I studied media with an intention of going into TV or radio hosting and thus specialized in that. In the second year at university, we received training in various media sectors (including filmmaking) and all my trainers told me that I was more effective behind the camera than in front of it. I was not convinced and met their comments with utter refusal. I went ahead and pursued a career as a TV hostess after graduating and returning to Sudan.  By then, I was convinced that if I’d fought this much to achieve that, then it’s definitely what I should do, so I started a one month training program with Sudan TV. Within a month I went from “this is my dream” to “I hate this so much”.

I made the decision to quit that dream; with the conviction that it didn’t suit me. I was unemployed for a year when I heard about the Sudan Film Factory.  An aunt of mine suggested I join the initiative and go into cinema and film production.  I wasn’t too sure; the industry was not what I had studied and I had no experience in that field whatsoever. At the time, it was the last days of the Sudan Film Factory workshop “I shot My First film”. I joined some guy in the shooting, and I was instantly hooked. I was there throughout the editing until the screening time.  As I watched the screenings and heard the filmmakers talk about their films, I felt like they held so much pride in their productions & that it felt like the greatest achievement.

A: Tell us about your films.

EAK: Talal Afifi, the director of the Factory, invited me to join a human rights related film workshop and in November 2012 I began training to produce a film in 45 days; from the script writing to the filming and editing phases. My first film was titled “Shemaish”. When I screened it at the end of the workshop, the workshop’s director Imad Mabrouk thought it should be improved and submitted to international festivals. I went back to the editing studio and retouched the light, sound, credits, translation and everything else so it’s up to par.

I shelved the film (Shemaish) and continued to work with the Sudan Film Factory, attending their workshops and all in all, just stuck to them and all that they were doing. I spent 2013 learning the trade and building my expertise so I can begin submitting “Shemaish” to various festivals. Through Talal’s nomination I participated in a filmmaking workshop in Luxor and Bird Eye View Film Festival for women filmmakers in London.  I returned with my mind reeling – I felt “Shemaish” was worth screening and was thinking of the best way to release it.

I began submissions and was selected for the 30th cycle of the Alexandria Cinema Festival.  I made it on time, and the screenings, commentary and festival were all marvelous. After that, “Shemaish” just kept getting screened in Iraq, Alexandria (again), Argentina (The International Film Festival on Human Rights held in Buenos Aires) and finally in the second cycle of the Sudan Independent Film Festival. I also began working for a news agency that produces small features and reports for news channels. The experience was essential in building my filmmaking career; it taught me commitment, efficiency and problem solving- all crucial traits for filmmaking.

Since then, I’ve produced a second film titled “Diyab”. 

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Image Credit: Waleed Alaa 

A: What are the challenges you face as a filmmaker?

EAK: I suppose the most important challenge is the fact that there’s no specific law that’ll determine the filmmaker’s rights or what’s prohibited or allowed. There’s always that worry of whether or not I – as a filmmaker – will be allowed to shoot in public places or not and whether or not we’ll face bigger problems- like getting the equipment confiscated, thus losing all the shots and materials. Getting permits is always hectic, what with all the different permits you need for a single scene. There’s no guide on how you can practice this legally. This can definitely be solved by creating studios or production cities, but we don’t have enough films produced per year to create billion dollar production cities. If I had a billion dollars, it’ll be better if I create a filmmaking or directing school instead of spending it on a city that’ll barely be used but for a few films a year.

Although shooting in public is such a hassle, we can’t take that as an excuse as cinematographers. In Sudan, people respect each other. So if a distant family member of yours lives in some village, rest assured that you can shoot in the whole village. Besides, filmmaking nowadays is all about tricks. For example, there’s this movie I was the filming manager for that had a scene where a lot of kids had to be packed in the back of a pickup truck and transported through the desert. We obviously couldn’t film that, so we went to my uncle’s house in Kafouri – being the old, respectable man that he is no one dared to ask – and got all the kids in the neighborhood to get in the back of the truck. It was all fun for them so we didn’t really have to work hard. Then the 60s tricks began. From swinging the truck sideways while it’s originally parked, to moving a flashlight next to the camera as we moved our feet on the sand to create the desert illusion. This simple trick overcame the need for a production city, which is a luxury that we can neither afford nor deal with now.

There are the other challenges of the finances and the funds, of course, but that has somewhat lessened since there are now many international funds and institutionalized support grants. If your idea is supreme, you can easily cover your film’s expenses through these opportunities.

One of the things that have helped me understand the industry better is attending the workshops and going to festivals and events in other countries. Not only does it broaden your perspective but it also makes you more aware of how it’s like for people in other places with different experiences. It is an enlightening experience that not only a filmmaker should seek but anyone from any professional background, to observe how fellow professionals go through their work in other societies. I still attend workshops and summits to this day and I’m confused by those who attend one or two and claim to have had enough knowledge to sustain their professional careers. It still feels great when I go to a workshop and realize that I’ve heard all the things they’re talking about, but there’s still the benefit of socializing with people who have the same interests but different cultural and social backgrounds. Besides, as a filmmaker, you’re supposed to see as much as possible to be able to interpret your ideas later on in the form of visuals with a message. As I travelled, I realized that the challenges facing independent filmmakers are the same around the world.

A: You’ve been with the Sudan Independent Film Festival since its inauguration in 2014, how did that come by?

EAK: The organizer of the Sudan Independent Film Festival is the Sudan Film Factory. The Factory was established in 2010, back when I was still in college.  I didn’t hear about it until around the end of 2012. SIFF on the other hand, I’ve seen it bloom from just an idea to what it is now. All the memories I have of it resemble a foggy dream of Talal deliberating whether or not to create a Festival or screening nights. It was all chatter until the first email was sent with the text: “Let’s pick a logo”. The instant the logo was chosen, I knew that the Festival was going to happen.

A: Tell us about the evolution of the SIFF since it was launched in 2014.

EAK: The Festival has changed so much from its first year to now. It started as a challenge to overcome the popular belief that the Film Factory would fall the instant Goethe institute stopped supporting it, and the Factory proved and continues to prove that belief is a fallacy. At first it resembled a family celebration, the wedding of the first daughter, perhaps. Anyone gave whatever they could offer. The screenings were in three locations; the British Council, the French Cultural Centre and Goethe Institute. We received a few submissions, so we had to ask filmmakers we knew for the right to screen their films. Egypt was the Guest of Honor due to the close relationships and geographical boundaries between the two countries. Huge names in cinema were invited; topped by Sayid Fouad, Head of the Luxor Film Festival and a lot of Egyptian filmmakers.

One of the Festival’s friends, Bentley Brown – an American director living in Chad with good connections in Sudan – agreed to screen a film he directed about the migration of Sudanese to the US and the struggles they face. The opening film and the musician (Dina AlWadidi) who serenaded guests on the opening night drew attention to the Festival at first. The Festival’s first theme was “Pan-Africanism’.

The news agency I worked for allowed me to form good professional connections with people from Sky News Arabia, AlHurra, and the likes, so we invited them as well as international media outlets. The first cycle, though not as huge as the second, was not inconsiderable and that is what ensured us sponsors in the second cycle. The second cycle was definitely larger with more workshops and screenings and obviously more guests – from Italy, Switzerland, Egypt and others. We had a lot of distinguished guests, such as Swiss directors and the Italian archives manager.

The opening of the second cycle was at AlTabia in Omdurman since it’s a historical spot with an everlasting imprint. The mere idea of a show there was bizarre – almost impossible even – so when we pursued the permits, no one had a vision or even an idea of what the night might be like. It was enchanting nonetheless; and one of the main reasons was the screening of the beautiful nostalgic feature film “Al Khartoum” by the late Sudanese filmmaking icon Jadallah Jubara. By then, a sense of familiarity and acceptance was established between the Ministry of Culture and the Festival. In this cycle, instead of the film screenings being at only three spots we managed to bring that number up to five; adding the Green Yard and DAL Cultural Forum, besides the regular ones. The attendees increased in number as well.

In the 2016 edition of the Festival, we addressed cultural resistance with all its forms from visual and auditory arts to the cinema and filmmaking industry. We opened submissions to films from all around the world and in broad categories, thus the 2016 edition aimed for a stronger output. We received 253 film submissions in total, mostly from Egypt and Iraq. There were also nominations for films with great impact in other similar Festivals. For the opening ceremony we chose the Palestinian film “Wanted 18” highlighting the core of our cultural resistance message. The opening ceremony was held in Tuti Island for many reasons; amongst which is the fact that the island was able to sustain its existence despite the encroachment of the Nile, and its people were also able to maintain their strong community ties despite the invasion enforced upon them by the bridge. The screening centers for the 2016 edition included the Omdurman Cultural Centre, thus we were able to have a centre in Bahri, three in Khartoum and one in Omdurman. That’s in addition to the opening and closing ceremonies locations; in Tuti and Camboni College respectively.

In 2016, a special addition was made by introducing the Hussein Shariffe award; the Black Elephant award was meant to present something prestigious to encourage Sudanese filmmakers to produce films and submit them locally and internationally. We hope to add a materialistic value and open it to other nationalities in the future. 

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Hussein Shariffe. Image Credit: sudanews.com 

There’s a new-found thirst towards cinema. The remarkable attendance of people in the screening of ElZamalik Cinema in Medani is an indication that a need has risen for this field in absence of diverse education and entertainment programs. Cinema is a means of education and entertainment, and when it’s found in this intensity one week per year then people would definitely attend if only to watch one film.

A: What are the tangible affects of the festival on Sudanese society?

EAK: I truly think that the re-creation of the base that regularly watches films – after having that destroyed back in the 90s – might possibly be the most important effect of all. The existence of people who work for this base – script writers, cast, sound and light technicians, editors, cameramen and women, producers, directors – who produce films so this fan-base could watch films produced within the borders of our country by our people is probably just as important. Additionally, I think it’s noteworthy to acknowledge that the communication created by Sudan-based filmmakers with Africa, the Arab world, Europe, and beyond has caused the attention of these cinema-producing countries to shift towards Sudan.

The only actual thing you need to succeed in this industry is true passion. Years ago, people would ask you where you have you studied directing to claim you’re directing a film, but that is not how it is now. You can be a self-taught filmmaker whose only schooling in the field is YouTube. The repulsion of the people from the cinema has definitely lessened, and on the contrary it’s now seen as a prestigious thing to be a filmmaker. A Sudanese film industry began appearing in Sudan, in the sense that people in the industry have acquired skills that are no less than the big names in the industry of other countries. We can compete internationally if not for a few obvious problems that we face. For example, we have challenges in promoting and refining talented actors, developing ideas and professional management of production. When it comes to ideas, Sudan is an infinite well. It hasn’t been touched yet, so it’s raw with so many possibilities that it’s almost impossible to find an overused idea. I learned from my travels that Sudan has a bit of everything. The problems we face with regards to ideas are the development and script writing. However, if you look at it from the cinematography and shooting angles, Sudanese filmmakers are somewhat mature enough to produce something tasteful and respectable.

A: With two senior positions in the central Filmmaking institution, what are your plans for the future?

EAK: I dream of going back and creating something like “Shemaish”; something that’s mine. And although I really want that, the Film Factory is at a time where it needs all the support it can get. It’s still building its pillars and I can’t distract myself from it now by producing a film when it needs me the most. Perhaps in another year the film factory might gain strength to stand without support and maybe then I’ll work on something new. For now, all my attention is poured into the Film Factory and the Festival.

In 10 years, I see myself as a part of the Festival still. Even if my feet carried me somewhere else, January would be spent in Khartoum with the Festival. I also see myself having a film or two – not too many – with an impact on the watchers and the cinema in general, films that compete seriously in worldwide contests and maybe win awards. They’ll hopefully be as mature and illuminating as the films in the top ranking festivals. So I see myself, hopefully as a professional filmmaker and a contributing member in both Sudan Film Factory and Sudan Independent Film Festival. And most of all, I wish there would be somewhere in Sudan where filmmaking is taught.

I believe the Festival will continue for a long time, since it became famous in the arts and culture scene and made a respectable name for itself. People know now that there’s a Festival in Sudan for independent films and filmmakers. I believe that as long as there are people with the spirit to carry the torch then the Festival won’t stop. The plan is to make it international with a strong base – which will be after the fifth year.

I hope that the festival becomes an attraction for anyone interested in watching a film, in making a film, in learning about films, in knowing what a festival is and for any foreigner interested in knowing what Sudan is like. I want it to be like the pilgrimage to anyone interested in visual arts from anywhere in the vast world, and for it to have more workshops, galleries, and screenings all day long in over 20 locations. I imagine that even though the festival is in Khartoum, it’ll have shows and screenings in a lot of different states around Sudan. I want it to be an annual event that is anticipated impatiently by people from all ages, genders, backgrounds and interests.