Ahead of Historic Cannes Debut, Desperate Sudanese Filmmakers Try to ‘Hold On and Not Lose Hope’ as Country Edges Toward Civil War
On April 14, just hours after the Cannes Film Festival unveiled the full line-up of its 76th edition, Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani took to Facebook to express his gratitude for the well wishes pouring in. His debut feature, “Goodbye Julia,” had been selected to world premiere in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, marking the first time a Sudanese film will bow on the Croisette.
“I do not know if faith and hard work alone make dreams come true,” he wrote, describing the challenge of making movies in Sudan as an “almost impossible” task. “One needs a little luck and a lot of people’s support and faith.”
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One day later, those dreams were dashed as violence erupted in the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
The conflict between factions loyal to two rival generals, who together engineered a military coup in 2021, has pushed Sudan to the brink of civil war. A tenuous ceasefire is now in place, putting a halt to hostilities that have thus far left at least 528 dead and displaced more than 330,000, according to the Sudanese government, although the actual figures are likely much higher.
Kordofani has spent these weeks putting the finishing touches on “Goodbye Julia” in Beirut, Lebanon. On the third day of fighting, he wrote that he was grappling with panic attacks and struggling to “hold on and not lose hope,” adding, “I try to forget what’s happening for moments, then I come back to realize it’s real [and I] can’t be woken up from this nightmare.” A week later, he posted: “How do you stop being on the verge of tear[s] all day every day?”
It’s been more than four years since a populist revolt in Sudan toppled the regime of Omar al-Bashir, a dictator indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, whose iron-fisted rule terrorized the East African nation for three decades. In his wake a transitional government was installed, which international onlookers hoped would eventually bring full-fledged democracy to the nation of 46 million.
That civilian government was toppled in 2021, leading to a wary détente between the Sudanese Army and forces loyal to a rival general. Last month, their fractious truce finally buckled under growing strain. Thousands of Sudanese have since fled into Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, while foreign nationals and diplomatic staff were hastily evacuated from Khartoum, including U.S. Embassy employees who were airlifted from the capital by American special operations forces.
Sudanese filmmaker Ibrahim Ahmed, who directed the documentary “Journey to Kenya” and served as production assistant on Amjad Abu Alala’s Venice prize winner “You Will Die at 20,” was living in a compound near the central airport in Khartoum when fighting broke out on April 15. “Everybody expected that it will happen sooner or later,” he told Variety. “But no one expected that it would be this violent.”
On the first day of the conflict, Ahmed — a veteran cameraman who documented the 2019 revolution and helped cover the 2021 coup for French broadcaster France24 — headed to the airport, which members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group were attempting to seize. Up ahead, he watched another reporter with a camera being detained by armed men. When they noticed Ahmed, they fired in his direction. The shots ricocheted off the wall behind him. “The first day, I dodged a lot of bullets,” he said.
As fighting escalated, RSF fighters began ransacking nearby hospitals for medical supplies and dug in behind the walls of Ahmed’s compound, so close that “you would feel all the shooting in your bed,” he said. By the end of the first week, Ahmed decided to flee Khartoum for Al Hasahisa, a small town three hours from the capital sitting at a bend in the Blue Nile, where he was taken in by family friends.
Since then, he’s been fielding calls from the BBC, France24, ARTE, AJ+ and other news networks. Power cuts — some lasting up to a full day — have made it difficult for him to file video footage or stay connected with the outside world. Although Al Hasahisa has largely been spared the violence, Ahmed said he watches a steady stream of injured civilians making their way to the town’s hospital daily, many nursing bullet and shrapnel wounds.
From his home in Cairo, Mohamed Awad Farah — head of the Sudanese Filmmaking Association — expressed his dismay that the fighting has reopened the wounds of what was once Africa’s longest-running civil war. “The military coup ruined everything,” he said, lashing out at combatants who only know “the language that speaks [in] bullets and machine guns.”
Farah, who supervises programming for the pro-revolution TV network Sudan Busra and worked closely with the transition government, moved to Cairo “for the safety of my family” after the 2021 coup. “The ecosystem for filmmakers, reporters, journalists, is not safe at all for us in Sudan,” he said. “They used to kill people in cool blood.”
After last month’s outbreak of violence, most of his remaining family joined Farah in Cairo, including his elderly mother, a diabetic, who spent five days waiting to cross the border. “They were starving when they came here,” he said.
For the past three weeks, Farah and other Sudanese in Cairo have been marshaling resources to help their countrymen. Last week, he moved his family into a larger apartment and bought additional beds and mattresses to accommodate the steady flow of refugees fleeing the violence — a show of solidarity being echoed throughout the Sudanese community in the Egyptian capital, he said.
Meanwhile, Farah continues to work with a network of filmmakers and journalists documenting the conflict in Sudan and trying to “make something out of this chaos.” “As a filmmaker, I believe it’s a must to speak out and to illustrate what’s happening,” he said. “I believe it’s a period of time where we will learn from this resilience.”
Amjad Abu Alala, who is a producer on “Goodbye Julia,” has been helping put the finishing touches on the film in Cairo ahead of its historic premiere on the Croisette. At the same time, he’s been organizing safe passage from Sudan for his family members and the film’s cast and crew, many of whom hope to be on the French Riviera when the Cannes Film Festival kicks off on May 16.
The filmmaker has been in regular contact with lead actress Eiman Yousif, who spent three anxious days at the Egyptian border — where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees — “and at the same time choosing what outfit, which designers she will wear” on the red carpet, said Alala. Lead actor Nazar Goma, meanwhile, remained behind in Sudan. “He chose to stay and not attend Cannes. He needs to be with his kids.”
This was meant to be a joyous moment for Sudan’s burgeoning film industry, which has racked up a string of successes in recent years. Hajooj Kuka’s feature debut “aKasha” world premiered in Venice Critics’ Week in 2018, one year before Alala’s “You Will Die at 20” won the Lion of the Future award for best first feature at Venice Days. That same year, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s “Talking About Trees” won the Panorama Audience Award for documentary at the Berlinale.
And now, for the first time, Sudanese filmmakers will walk the red carpet in Cannes, hoping to savor their triumph despite the uncertain future awaiting them back home. Alala said that most of the crew of “Goodbye Julia,” who arrived safely in Cairo after 10 days on the road, plan to attend the premiere, although many fled Sudan without passports or visas to travel to Europe.
“It’s so confusing, this happiness at making Sudan recognized by such a great festival in Cannes. At the same time, this happiness is missing a lot,” he said. “We don’t know, when someone says ‘Congratulations,’ [if we should] say thanks or [offer] condolences for what’s happening.”
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