In late April 2017, a short film titled “Zawaja Gali” (Expensive Wedding) was screened to a diverse audience. The movie producer, Sam Lukudu, and his small crew waited for people to settle down to introduce it. “Zawaja Gali” begins with a young couple toasting a marriage proposal at a bar. The main character Jada, depicted by Sam Lukudu, is a young man from Equatoria who intends to marry a Dinka lady, Aluel. The movie delves into marriage within the South Sudanese society as it cements its patriarchal values when the parents of Aluel arrange another marriage for her as a second wife. It also discusses tribalism, a vice that has become rampant in recent years since the conflict began, but within the context of marriage. The film is entertaining, spiced with humor and conflicting views.
Sam Lukudu is a journalist and film maker, when he was younger he had dreams of becoming a cinematographer; a dream that nearly faded away until he completed a degree in Mass Communication at the Day Star University in Nairobi. He then came back to South Sudan and worked as a journalist for some time then traveled to the UK to pursue a post-graduate degree. He is an independent filmmaker and a proud multi-national; his first home is South Sudan and he considers Sudan his second home and Kenya his third.
Zawaja Gali is Sam Lukudu’s first work of fiction, so he was thrilled to get viewers’ take on it. He screened it twice in Juba and intends to submit it to various film festivals in Sudan and the East African region. I met up with Sam just days after his final screening to talk about the film, his career and future plans.
Ayuel Maluak: Tell us how you became a movie producer in South Sudan.
Sam Lukudu: I always wanted to be a cinematographer since I was a child living in Khartoum. That dream almost died because when I was a teenager, I thought I’m wasting my time thinking I can become a cinematographer in Sudan. I almost gave up. Luckily when I went to Kenya and studied Mass Communication and Electronic Media, that dream came back to life. After finishing my degree in Kenya, I came back to Juba to practice journalism. I then went to the UK in 2012 to do my Master’s in Film Making. When I came back to Juba I focused on documentary films and did one feature documentary until this recent project, Zawaja Gali.
AM: Can you tell us about your documentaries?
SL: I have done a few short films, but the one that I will mention is called the Trial, which was my main serious film. When the 2013 war broke out, there was a group of people the government accused of plotting a coup against the regime. That group of people consisted of many senior SPLM officials and they were taken to court. The film was about them and whether the government had a case or not. The film is about an hour long and is available on Youtube. That was the main major film that I produced here in South Sudan.
AM: Was it an independent film?
SL: I’ve been an independent journalist for a while now, but when I first came back from Nairobi I was with Eye Radio, which at the time used to be called Sudan Radio Service. I didn’t stay with them for long and decided to become an independent journalist and film maker. It has not always been easy because sometimes there’s no money, but somehow I’ve managed to survive and I am still standing so that’s a miracle in a way.
AM: What are some of your motivations for film making in South Sudan?
SL: I’m trying to make a difference through media. I’ve started a media production company called SKP South Sudan and I have a small team that has been working with me; the main guy is Cont De Monk, who directed this Zawaja Gali project, and there is Charles Lomodong, who was one of the producers as well. We have been working together on SKP South Sudan and this was our first project together as a team and hopefully we will have many more coming.
The main aim is to make a difference through media and let the world know that in South Sudan we have people and artists who are capable of producing works of art. The stories we are going to focus on are going to be stories that will make a difference- for example The Trial documentary film was about a sensitive topic around a major event, so this was history and we needed to document that and remind people about it. The films we make are going to live forever, hopefully long after we are gone. So the motivation is documenting the history of our nation and making feature stories and films that will help our community or our people through various ways.
AM: How do you find the media environment in South Sudan?
SL: It could be better, there are many challenges for some of us; especially independent artists. I feel that sometimes the authorities could be aggressive towards us. But we have been surviving and I think some of us who have been here long enough know how to play it safe; we know the do’s and don’ts. There is always room for improvement, that’s what people say, so hopefully things will get better.
AM: Have you gotten into any trouble over anything controversial you produced?
SL: Not really, I would say it was risky for me and a lot of people were very concerned and thought maybe I was going to get into trouble. I think I played it safe and balanced the film. Everything I do, all my projects, usually balance out especially documentary films or feature stories and news stories. We always want to give the government a chance to speak and then later on if they have a problem, you tell them “well I gave you a chance to talk”, that’s why it’s about balancing and that’s what journalism is all about. Maybe for the time being I could be just be a nobody making a lot of noise that is not heard by many people, but the moment you get to the top and become influential, maybe that is going to be looked at as a threat and they will deal with it accordingly. I’m just guessing, but for now I’m okay.
AM: Let’s talk about your latest movie Zawaja Gali, it has an interesting plot especially in terms of the topics discussed and the modern societal portrayals. How long did it take to write the script and what were your motivations for writing it?
SL: Well this is pretty interesting because to be honest; there was no motive behind it. Cont De Monk, Charles Lomodong and I wanted to work together and for so long Conte has been persuading me to sit down or team up and do something. That went on for about two years, because we have focused more on documentaries and news stories. I once just sat down and I had this idea and so I wrote the script on about 10 pages. Then I reached out and asked Conte De Monk to take a look. He liked it and we started preparing for the production.
AM: How long did it take to make the film?
SL: The writing in the pre-production stage didn’t take us very long; I spent about a few days developing the whole story. After we had the story we took a few weeks, I’d say two months maybe, to plan properly and then cast the talent. I was on the move between Khartoum and Juba so there was a lot of back and forth. In three months time, the story was properly cooked and we started shooting, which took about a week to finish.
That was the production phase, then after that I took the raw footage with me to Khartoum to handle the post-production. Admittedly, it took me a long time to finish, because I was preoccupied with family priorities and issues that needed my immediate attention. Nine months later I came back with the final cut and we all sat down and watched it in Juba. The team actually loved the turn-out of the short film; we were all like wow, we didn’t actually expect it to be this good.
AM: So beyond the production, did you have any difficulty in casting?
Sam: The casting process was taken care of by Hakim and Charles and one of the actors; Bul (Jacob Bul). They did not face major challenges because Bul is in the industry and he knows all the actors personally, so he contacted them and they cast a few. When I was writing the script I felt I was doing the role I eventually played but I had second thoughts about acting. I’m no Leonardo Di Caprio but I think I did alright.
AM: Apart from the main idea which is marriage, did you try depicting the social life or the economic situation and other difficulties of living in South Sudan?
SL: When I was writing I didn’t actually think of addressing any of these issues particularly or focusing on them but as the story developed we realized that we were touching on sensitive issues like tribalism. Then there was the issue of the commercialization of marriages and ladies being commodities in our communities, sold to the highest bidder without a say in the matter. A short film can never encompass all issues in depth, but we wrote a South Sudanese affair and a lot of things we addressed in the film are things that happen in our community or in our society. That is how, coincidentally, we ended up touching on many of these issues that we face in the community.
AM: Have you personally come across any of the issues (tribalism, bride price, etc.) that you discuss in the movie?
SL: Personally, no, I have not approached any lady’s family. Tribalism in this society is present. It is something that we come across or experience on a daily basis in South Sudan. It’s destroying our nation, killing us and it’s unfortunate, but it is something that we could address through media. I know people who through mere conversations one could tell they don’t like some tribes or some people from other tribes and vice versa. I have also known a few friends who went through the difficulty of marrying a lady they love because they did not have enough money and the lady was almost given to someone else.
To be honest someone inspired me to write this story, because it happened that he was from the same community as the lady but he did not have enough cows and they wanted to marry her to another guy who had money. In the real story the rejected guy kidnapped the lady and impregnated her, leaving the family no choice but to marry them off. In our society most of the youth nowadays sit down and agree to do things in a certain way, but then society, the families and their expectations thwart these efforts into desperation, sometimes forcing the youth to take matters into their own hands. This is what we are becoming. I’m not trying to change anything, because if we look back, way back to when the dowry started, the origin of all that had a good reason behind it, but now everything is becoming like a business basically.
AM: In the movie you depict a very patriarchal society; were there any negative implications perceived by the public at the screenings?
SL: We screened the film twice in Juba, but screenings were exclusive so far and haven’t reached wide audiences yet. I said during the recent screening that as an artist I always worry and focus on my target audience. I don’t expect the whole of South Sudan to be pleased or to appreciate this film; there will be people who take offense or dismiss it. I’m ready for that because that’s how it is in the world of films. However, we have been getting good feedback. The people who have watched the film and interacted with us had nothing bad to say about the messages. We got a few comments here and there about the story, the plot and whatnot but I’d say, generally speaking, we’ve been getting positive feedback. People appreciate the artwork.
AM: What has been your target audience?
SL: Open-minded, smart people; because if you take anything with an open mind you will not take offense. I made a comment, which was not liked by many people during the recent screening when I said, “as an artist, my main primary target audience is me myself and I, that’s me, so everything I do I focus on myself if I like it then it’s good, I don’t worry about other people because it’s as if I’m the primary audience and I have a secondary target audience and there are a lot of people who fall under the secondary category.” But as far as the main primary target audience is concerned, which is me, when I do something, I look at it critically, if it’s bad I’ll be honest with myself and say nah, I could do better. Of course with every artwork, with every production I improve; that’s the key to be successful in life, just keep on learning from your mistakes when going up. So we’ll focus on our target audience and forget everyone else because we cannot please everyone.
AM: Do you think that your history with making documentaries has influenced the making of this film?
SL: It’s difficult for me to say, but people who have been observing my work would have a better say in this. I love film making especially making documentary films because it has been a dream of mine; I wanted to be a film maker since I was a child, then along the way I bumped into journalism. I think that being a journalist has affected me a lot. I’m passionate about it, so when I make films, especially documentary films, it’s like both sides meet in the middle. I take pleasure in that. I think I am half journalist and half filmmaker; they somehow make me who I am.
AM: Having watched the film I was left in suspense about the possibilities and also the conflict. There is a great disparity between the old and the young in their perception of marriage, tribalism and bride price as shown in the film. How do you think you can solve these issues discussed?
SL: As independent artists, we used film as a tool and highlighted a few major issues and vital sensitive things that we are experiencing, some of them are things that we hope we can somehow one day find a way to get rid of. We are projecting negative things through the film and hoping that people who watch it can then take a stand against these phenomena. I wouldn’t say I’m an activist, although, I think I am in a way. I am not going to take it upon myself to go around advocating and asking chiefs and community elders to either cancel or change what they have going on now. It’s really up to the people. But I think what we have projected is enough for our part as artists who have an active role to play in society. At the end of the day it’s artwork, it’s a movie, a work of fiction, but these are things that happen in our society. So hopefully we are going to be able to make a difference.
I like what you said about suspense; we were delighted that almost each and every person who watched the film told us they wanted to see more, asking what happens next. We told them this is a short movie not a long feature film, but we were happy because people were satisfied and I think that is a good start. What we really wanted to do was show the world that South Sudan has what it takes to create high quality films. It wasn’t easy making this movie because we did not really have money. The trio-team sat down and came up with some money to pay the crew and the talent, we didn’t even take anything out of it, and in fact by the end of the production we were broke. It was worth it because sometimes you have to go out of your way to do something like that for a good cause.
AM: Did you get any independent sponsors willing to fund future projects after the screening of this movie?
SL: So far not yet, but then again we have screened it to a limited amount of people. We are planning to submit it to a number of film festivals around the world. I’m very positive about this project. I have a good feeling about it and I think after we go around the world showing it to people, a lot of doors are going to open for us. The next project is not going to be as challenging as this one in terms of production because we are going to have support of some sort. We take pride as independent artists with this particular project because we did it independently and we are very proud of that because it wasn’t easy, it’s a major achievement as opposed to if someone gave us money and told us to produce a film about this and that. That would have probably changed a lot of things. I feel like people who give you money always have a say in what you do. As an artist, I have my way and it’s going to be difficult for me to get that kind of support. I don’t think there is free money in this world. But as journalists we freelance, we have gigs sometimes for agencies, so money is never an issue. We can do feature films and use that money to produce our own stuff.
AM: Have you started planning for your next screening?
SL: As we speak we have decided not to screen it again in Juba. The first screening was very exclusive and people who came liked it. They started talking about it and then there was a hype that was generated and people kept asking us to do a second screening, which we did. We are not going to release it to the public any time soon, so it’s not going on Youtube or any other public platform. This is because the film festivals we will apply to are very particular about that.
I thought of having a screening in Khartoum, and maybe one in Nairobi because I’m from these three cities and this being my first movie as a producer I wanted to share it with my people in Khartoum, and Nairobi as well. We also thought it might be best to just start submitting it to festivals around the globe and the region, so if there is a festival in Khartoum, maybe we can submit it to that festival and then have people attend it to watch the film. So far there is no clear idea when and where the next screening will be.
AM: What other projects are you currently working on?
SL: We have a few story ideas we plan on working on. I can’t really tell you much about most of them now but there is a project that I am developing and most likely it is going to be produced here and in Sudan. The idea is about two boxing champions from Sudan and South Sudan, but you’ll hear the rest of it as the story develops. We have a bunch of other stories that the original trio-team will work on; the three of us have established a very good relationship as far as our artwork is concerned. So expect many more short films and a longer feature film. This year we’re going to be very active, so this is just the beginning.