Interview with Suzannah Mirghani, director of Al-sit
Sunday 7 February 2021, by ,
This is a very moving story. Is it based on personal experience or someone you know?
The story of the arranged marriage depicted in my film Al-Sit is a common one in Sudan and the norm for many Sudanese families. While I did not personally experience an arranged marriage, I grew up in this cultural environment and know many young girls whose marriages were arranged by their parents, or, especially, their grandmothers. I am always curious about what goes through the mind of a young girl when her life path is chosen by others in her family, and I have so many unanswered questions: How does this young girl feel about the situation? What does she truly desire? How is it that a young girl has no say whatsoever and yet another female, her grandmother, is the final decision-maker? How does one go from being utterly voiceless and vulnerable as a young girl to gaining so much power and prestige within her lifetime to become a matriarch? These questions are at the core of my film as I explore the two ends of the female power spectrum in Sudanese society. Most people in Sudan have an Al-Sit somewhere in their extended family, whether it is their own grandmother or great grandmother or another great relative. Sudan has a very strong history of matriarchy and these elders are respected within the household and within the community, and often they rule in a very real way.
The actors are believable and give strong performances. What was the casting process like?
The recent successes of Sudanese cinema, with films by Amjad Abu Alala, Marwa Zein, Suhaib Gasmelbari, Hajooj Kuka, and Mo Kordofani created a real buzz for the auditions we held at the Sudan Film Factory – Sudan’s preeminent film hub founded by Talal Afifi. We were delighted with the public response, and there was great interest in people auditioning for Al-Sit, whether or not they had previous acting experience. People have been galvanized by the Sudanese revolution and the resurrection of Sudanese cinema after decades of government prohibition, and see film as a very real and attractive career. The younger performers – including Mihad Murtada who plays Nafisa and Mohammed Magdi who plays Nadir – are all first-time actors. When I first saw Mihad Murtada at the audition, I knew immediately that “this is the girl.” Sudan is also brimming with talented professional actors, but mostly in theater. The older actors in the film are all celebrated stage actors, including the formidable Rabeha Mohammed Mahmoud, who plays Al-Sit; Haram Basher and Alsir Mahjoub, who play Nafisa’s parents; and a guest appearance by Abdalla Jacknoon, who plays Babiker’s father.
Can you tell us more about the shoot in that part of Sudan? How straightforward was it?
“Nothing is straightforward in Sudan, but it all comes together in the end” is one of my favorite statements from those working in Sudan’s nascent film industry. We really could not have made this film were it not for the generosity and welcome of the village community in Azaza and the Khartoum neighborhood of West Giref. With few hotel options in or around Azaza village, we were welcomed in people’s homes for the duration of the shoot, and the entire cast and crew was accommodated in a series of village houses. Making Al-Sit was much more than just making a film; it was an opportunity to connect to these various Sudanese communities, both in the village and in Khartoum. Because there is little in the way of a film industry and so few films made in Sudan, Al-Sit was backed by a variety of individuals who were interested in seeing the success of the project. All my family members contributed to the making of Al-Sit in one way or another, from funding to critiquing. In many ways, the production of Al-Sit was a collaborative effort between various individuals and institutions, and became a communal curiosity and a collective project, with the entire cast and crew contributing in ways that went above and beyond any stated role. We were also fortunate to receive an incredible amount of help from various institutions, including the Sudan Film Factory, who provided all kinds of practical support and advice, and the Doha Film Institute, who awarded the film a production grant, which kick started the whole production process.
Al-sit is very critical of British intervention in the country. Is that a widely held sentiment?
Sudan was under British colonial rule for many decades up until the first half of the twentieth century. This was a time of great exploitation, including, and perhaps especially, in the cotton industry, and its effects are still very much felt in the country. Many older people, like Al-sit, had direct negative experiences, and still carry those scars – literally and metaphorically. Al-sit’s traumatic memories of colonialism make her steadfastly critical and suspicious of outsiders to this day – hence her strong negative reaction to Nadir, the Sudanese suitor who lives abroad. In an interesting twist that highlights Sudanese humor, some people would actually celebrate the modern infrastructure established during British rule as an underhanded way of criticizing the failures of any Sudanese government since independence. My grandmother and grandfather would often have comical arguments over whether the English – what most people in Sudan call British colonizers – actually improved or decimated the country in comparison to Sudanese governments in the postcolonial period.
What do you think the future holds for short films?
I think interest in the short film form is a constant, irrespective of trends in the film industry. In contrast to the difficulty in getting feature films made, especially after the hit global film industries have taken since 2020 with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, short films have always been manageable with their smaller crews and budgets and are an ideal way of telling a story. As we have already seen recently, the conditions are ripe for an increase in the production of short films, whether professional or amateur. All of my young nephews and nieces are adept at using their mobile phones and digital media to tell their own stories, in whatever form that might take. I am always surprised to think that it took me years to learn filmmaking, but the children in my family all seem to be natural-born filmmakers who are self-trained through their daily experiences with digital media. They are storytellers, cinematographers, editors, critics, and audiences all rolled into one – and barely teenagers.
If we were to go back into lockdown, what cultural or artistic delights would you recommend to alleviate our boredom?
While the global lockdowns of 2020, and now 2021, made everyone heavily dependent on “consuming” media in all its forms as people were forced to stay at home, these restrictions have also been very productive for many people – whether it is writing that story you always threatened to, or making that short film you thought of but never had the time. Many people have become creative out of a sense of necessity, and some great works of art have been produced over the past year. It is especially encouraging to know that these works are created by individuals, rather than by large organizations, which is testament to how people could always rely on themselves to entertain and occupy themselves by producing creative content but never had the opportunity. I just recently made a short film at home called Virtual Voice using my mobile phone, which is something I never would have done were it not for the lockdown and a sense of compulsion to create. It is important to note, however, that while the increased availability of digital technologies and time spent at home have made short filmmaking a real possibility for some, this is, of course, not to downplay the personal anguish and professional disruption experienced by those who do not have the accommodation, inclination, or means to engage in such creative activities.
Al-sit is part of International Competition I5.