Ahmed Abdel Mohsen donkeyshot Film Production
Text: Eric Johnson/Images: Markus Bertschi, Firoze Edassery

Re-boot for movie-making in Sudan

A Zurich-based film-maker is reviving his industry in this war-torn East African country. He is an Egyptian who almost by accident ended up in Switzerland.

“Originally I wanted to study film in California. I ended up  in Switzerland instead.”

Like many aspiring directors, Ahmed Abdel Mohsen wanted to cap his media and journalism studies with a degree from a film school in southern California, the world’s cinematic capital. Unlike most of them, the young man, who had studied media and journalism in his home country of Egypt, was set to realise his dream. Everything was booked: the admission, the scholarship, the residence permit, even the flight, which was set to depart Cairo for America in late 2001 – on the 16th of September. Then the infamous attacks of September 11th threw off the plan. The toppling of New York’s Twin Towers also toppled Mohsen’s plan for a Hollywood education. Arab migration to America, his included, was locked down.

Fortunately, there were still some opportunities in Europe. Through some past visits and ongoing networking, Mohsen was able in 2002 to start a 4-year programme in film-making based in Zurich. He lost no time in making up for lost time.

Already in 2003 he directed his first feature film, and from that went on to direct four others before he made his first full return to Africa. This is preserved in his 2011 documentary, “Sira – Songs of the Crescent Moon”, that depicts an Egyptian family’s struggle to balance modernity and tradition. From there he turned to another Egyptian subject, the Arab Spring uprising that swept Cairo and other capitals from early in 2011. Although this resulted in another acclaimed documentary, “Laila, Hala und Karima – A Year in Revolutionary Cairo”, the changing political constellation made it increasingly difficult for Mohsen to stay there. “By 2012, after months of military pressure,” he recalls, “it was no longer possible for me to work in Egypt.”

What now?

Instead, he decided to shift his focus one country to the south, to the Sudan. There, 1,000 km to the south of Mohsen’s home city of Aswan but also on the banks of the River Nile, was the setting of a story that he wanted to film. “Season of Migration to the North” is a prize-winning novel by Tayeb Salih (see box), first published in English in 1969. It tells of an African who studies in Europe and then returns to his Sudanese village, bringing with him a clash of cultures and post-colonialism that can only hope for positive resolution. The theme is controversial: in the initial years following its publication, the book was banned in Sudan.

In 2012 Mohsen began scouting for locations and production teams that could create a cinematic version of the novel. In criss-cross­ing Sudan for three weeks, he came to an inescapable conclusion: the same sort of political/social forces that had originally banned the book had also banished the country’s film industry. “Sudan,” he notes, “really had no film industry for 35 years.”

Instead of backing down, Mohsen decided to start again, at a more fundamental level. He set out to revive the Sudanese film industry, which had imploded during the 1980s.

Building from the ground up

The business was truly wiped out. The only technical expertise resided with locals who had been trained by East Germans and Soviets back in the 1960s and ’70s. Today their know-how is largely outdated. There are no film schools. Even most cinemas are closed, thanks to curfews imposed to keep public order, which prevent ordinary people from going to the movies.

Already on his scouting trip of 2012, Mohsen started offering workshops and seminars to Sudan’s young generation of nascent film-makers. Every skill was and is needed: story development, script writing, cinematography, lighting, directing, acting and on and on and on. This was clearly more than he could offer by himself, so upon his return to Zurich, he began talking to friends in the Swiss industry as well as to sponsors in Switzerland’s government and cultural institutions. He ended up receiving support from, among others, the Swiss Embassy to Sudan and Switzerland’s Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

After initial trepidations about living conditions and personal safety (that were quickly dispelled), a dozen colleagues agreed to make a 3-week teaching tour of Sudan in early 2014. Soon this grew to a total of six tours, one every three months, featuring workshops, experimental theatre, lectures and a festival of classic Sudanese films. Before the latter could be shown, they had to be digitised from their old celluloid formats – their own Sudanese makers had not seen them for the better part of 30 years!

“We’re looking to bring change through art.”

Roots taking hold

The revival just kept gaining steam, and it spread into two more directions. One is the ongoing establishment of a film studio in a village called Karmakol, located three to four  hours’ drive north of Khartoum. Decades ago the site was abandoned, because it was regularly inundated by the neighbouring Nile. Since then those floods have been engineered out of existence – leaving behind a perfect set for movie-making. Not only that, Mohsen says, the empty village is an ideal centre for native culture, because it is also the hometown of the country’s literary hero, Tayeb Salih.

Karmakol will provide the backdrop for Mohsen’s filming of Salih’s masterpiece “Season”. After the shooting wraps, Mohsen has promised to donate all the film’s equipment to local artists, the same ones who have been trained in the series of workshops that Mohsen organised. With the support of Mohsen and his project team the local Sudanese film-makers will shoot another six features, three fictions and three documentaries. Pre-production for these is already underway; filming is expected to kick off in 2017. One of the key successes in this initiative in Sudan is the patronage of UNESCO for all projects.

Mohsen’s hope is that all of these films will do more than just entertain. Film-making might be a way to help reconcile the cultural and governmental differences that continue to plague Sudan, decades after Salih novelised them. “Change through art – this is something that needs to be tried,” Mohsen says. “This might work better than did the Arab Spring.”

“Sudan really had no film industry for about 35 years.”

The Swiss-Sudanese collaboration is bearing other fruits. From the teaching tours, a number of other ideas have sprouted. “From visiting Sudan and meeting its people,” Mohsen notes, “my Swiss colleagues are now pursuing various film projects there.” The Swiss, who find it frustrating waiting three to four years to realise a project, have learned patience from their Sudanese counterparts, some of who have waited 30–40 years. Mohsen expects the collaborations to bring cinematic benefits to both Sudan and Switzerland.

Ahmed Abdel Mohsen

The film-maker got his degree in media and journalism at Egypt’s South Valley University before graduating in 2005 from Zurich’s F + F School of Art and Media Design. Mohsen now works as an independent filmmaker, project manager and translator under the label of Zurich-based Donkeyshot Film Production. He has directed six feature films, most recently “Laila, Hala und Karima – A Year in Revolutionary Cairo”, that documents the lives of three female artists through the Arab Spring, starting with a hand-held camera sequence filmed at rallies that began in the city’s Tahrir Square. Currently he is at work on a film “Season of Migration to the North”, which is hoped to debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2017.