"You see I am very lucky in my life I know all the aspects of film, not because I’m a genius, but I was lucky. I did what I want to do, anything I like to do." – Gadalla Gubara Al-Kaki
More often than not, cinematic images of Africa portray a simplified, generalised, and misunderstood continent of tribal people, animals, war, famine, and poverty. Typically produced by non-Africans for non-African audiences, these films have known no geographic or temporal context - from the Tarzan movie franchise, which started in 1932, to the African witchcraft of Jean Rouch’s controversial 1955 film, Les Maîtres Fous, to the show of Western strength in the 1964 movie, Zulu, and the recent depiction of a white saviour in Machine Gun Preacher. While they may possess other redeeming qualities, these fims have failed to show a progressive Africa. Instead, they remind us of what Rudyard Kipling termed, "the white man’s burden".
African filmmakers have portrayed a radically different image of the continent. Gadalla Gubara, Sudan’s first major cinematographer and filmmaker, embodies this more nuanced approach. His career began when African cinema was first emerging, a period of great optimism following decolonisation, a time when Sudan was producing its own films, when there were greater social freedoms, a Sudan before the horrors and struggles of today.
Gadalla Gubara Al-Faki was born in Sudan in 1920 and studied at Gordon Memorial College (now University of Khartoum). While serving with the British Army Signal Corp in the North African Campaign during World War II, Gubara was first exposed to cinema through films such as Desert Victory and Our African Soldiers in the Active Service shown by the British Colonial Film Unit.
At the Film Unit’s behest, Gubara received training to be a cameraman at Studio Masr in Cairo. The Film Unit would also be the first to employ Gubara as a filmmaker, commissioning him to produce educational footage of resource developments in cotton & gum, Sudan’s biggest exports at the time. In 1946 Gubara worked in Sudan’s Ministry of Information, producing 35mm newsreels of government events and official trips.
Part of Gubara’s work in the Sudan Film Unit involved sending mobile cinemas around the country to show news and educational footage. Gubara was a passionate believer in the power of cinema to educate and spread knowledge among Sudan’s population, then spread out over 2.5 million square kilometers.
In 1959, Gubara was sent by the Ministry of Information to the University of Southern California, and was appointed Director of the Sudan Film Unit in 1962 upon his return.
Gubara and fellow scriptwriter Kamal Ibrahim, were the only cameramen to record Sudan’s Independence on January 1st 1956. He captured the symbolic moments when democratically elected Prime Minister Ismail Al-Azhari walked from the parliament to the presidential palace and replaced the British and Egyptian flags with the blue, gold, and green flag of Sudan.
In 1955, Gubara produced Africa’s first colour film, Song of Khartoum, a contribution to the avant-garde city symphony genre. He then produced Khartoum (1960) a tribute to the capital and its modern nightlife, architecture, shops, civil society, and fashion. Gubara’s films from the 1960s and 70s capture what many refer to as “the Golden era of Sudan” when “Khartoum was the Beirut ... or ... the Paris of Africa”. At the time, Khartoum was a multicultural city with dozens of Catholic, Protestant, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches, and a variety of ethnic communities - Jewish, Armenian, Syrian, Greek, Lebanese, and Serbian. This rings true with Gubara’s memories of the capital:
“Khartoum was an open city; it had all kinds of amusements, it had nightclubs. People can play freely, can dance…But when the sharia started with Nimeiry, Khartoum became just like an Islamic town.”
In order to maintain power, Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry (1969-1985) sought to co-opt the country’s Islamist political factions by implementing sharia law, banning alcohol, and closing nightclubs.
Tired of producing newsreels for the government, Gubara left the Sudan Film Unit in 1974 and embarked on his dream of producing feature films. But Sudan had no film studios. As Gubara recounts: “to make a film I took the trouble to build the studio first and then to make a film.” The result was Sudan’s first movie studio, Studio Gad. In 1979, Gubaramade Sudan’s first feature film, Tajouj, was released. Set among the Homran people, who live close to the Eritrean border, the film tells the story of a man who openly expresses his love for a woman (Tajouj) in a song. However, this gesture of love is prohibited by village custom and the man becomes a social outcast, forbidden from marrying Tajouj. After repenting, the man is permitted to pursue Tajouj. A bitter rivalry soon develops between him and another man, who has also asked for Tajouj’s hand in marriage.
Gubara created Tajouj in 3 weeks, with his own money and the assistance of an Egyptian film crew. While making the film, Gubara applied practices from American director and mentor, Stanley Kramer. This included allowing actors a greater freedom to perform scenes using their own intuition.
Tajouj explores the strong traditional and moral customs of village life, while also expressing Gubara’s concerns about western cultural influence on the Sudanese youth who used to “dance, play and drink and forget about traditions”. In his own words, Gubara made Tajouj, “to remind them [the Sudanese], about the love, about the respect of women”.
Tajouj won the Nefertiti Statute (Egypt’s highest film award) at the Cairo Film Festival in 1982. It was shown at 11 other festivals, winning 11 prizes in Alexandria, Ouagadougou, Tehran, Addis Ababa, Berlin, Moscow, Cannes and Carthage - where Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba gave Gubara an award for his work in developing cinema between Arabs and Africans.
Despite his central role in developing African film, Gubara remained an outsider. He believed the large amounts of French funding defeated the independence of African cinema. However, in making his last film Gubara received subsidies from the French Embassy as part of a €10 million ($13 million) Euro African Film Development fund.
In 1989, Omar Al-Bashir’s Al-Ingaz ‘Salvation’ coup reintroduced full sharia law, abolished many social and political freedoms, and purged Sudan’s intelligentsia. As a result of the raging civil war and the government’s decision to give refuge to Osama Bin Laden in 1992, the country soon became globally ostracised and economically crippled.
The government seized Gubara’s studio and imprisoned him for a month. After a legal struggle lasting 5 years, the studio was returned to Gubara by court order. Then in 1998, soldiers came to Gubara’s home and reclaimed the studio. In the midst of these pressures, he developed a condition known as “hysterical blindness” or "conversion disorder", a stress-related condition which resulted in a permanent loss of sight.
Resilient as ever, Gubara continued to make films with the assistance of his daughter Sarah, who was determined to continue her father’s legacy. Together they made his last film in 2005, a Sudanese version of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables. Gubara had a deep love for Hugo’s novel and believed that it aptly mirrored the struggles of the Sudanese people. However, the film was not broadly released in Sudan and remained virtually unknown, as Gubara only wanted the film to be previewed in foreign festivals.
Gubara continued to receive accolades from the African cinematic community – in 2006 he received the Award for Excellence from the African Academy Movie Awards in Nigeria and his films were screened at the International Film Festival in Uganda in 2008.
In 2008 at the age of 88, Gubara had plans for three more films, and had met with the President of Masr Studios to establish a film lab in Sudan. That very same year, before these plans could materialise, Gadalla Gubara suffered a heart attack and died in Khartoum. Thousands of people attended his funeral.
During his long and active career, Gubara produced 31 documentaries and 4 of Sudan’s 8 feature films. Unfortunately, however, he remains virtually unknown to the youth in Sudan and diaspora. With stacks of film and rusting canisters collecting dust, Studio Gad has also entered a steep decline.
In the past, Khartoum had 17 cinemas, now only 5 or 6 of these remain. The cinemas show mostly Indian, Egyptian and few Western films. The Sudan Film Unit which Gubara helped to establish was disbanded by the government. Filming instead became a tool in the government’s propaganda campaign during the Second Sudanese Civil War. In 1993, the Ministry of Culture and Information issued a ministerial order to disband the Sudan Cinema Corporation, Sudan’s only distributor of local and foreign films.
Due to government restrictions and the threat of incarceration, Sudanese film makers have increasingly gone west to show their work. In the past 15 years, only 3 films have been produced for a domestic audience. Fortunately, there has still been a consistent production of local documentaries shown internationally. A particularly sobering piece, "Orphans of Mygoma" made by Taghreed Elsanhouri for Al Jazeera’s Witness, explores an orphanage in the city of Omdurman. Sadly, however, no indigenous Sudanese feature filmmaker has yet arrived to replace Gadalla Gubara – a person who embodied hope, optimism and love of culture, and whose films still preserve Sudan’s rich cultural past.
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