| Tom Little |
KHARTOUM (AFP) – Standing in his dimly lit projection room, Ali al-Nur longs for the days when Sudanese filmgoers filled the rows of plush red seats below, enthralled by American blockbusters, Egyptian comedies and Bollywood extravaganzas.
The Palace of Youth and Children where Nur, 55, works is one of just three functioning cinemas left in a city of 4.6 million people.
Today few visit the squat, concrete hall, its outside plastered with sun-faded posters for the years-old Indian action films it screens.
Although Khartoum’s upmarket Afra mall has a screen, the Palace is a rare survivor of the heyday of the capital’s cinemas.
Many stand empty after closing their doors because of the economic hardship and government policies that followed the 1989 conservative-backed coup that brought President Omar al-Bashir to power.
Nur started working in the cinemas as a teenager in his hometown of El Obeid, before studying film engineering in Cairo and arriving in Khartoum in 1983, where he worked in three other cinemas.
At the time Khartoum had some 15 cinemas, all packed on weekends.
“In the past, people used to call to reserve tickets and in the week there was a programme with English-language films on Sunday, Arabic on Tuesday,” Nur says amid the whirr of his projection room.
Today the Palace fills just a handful of seats and many of its customers are young couples seeking somewhere private to talk rather than the delights of the silver screen.
“Cinema’s in a bad state now. There’s no cinema really,” Nur sighs.
The Sudanese economy suffered badly after 1989, particularly when the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1997 over allegations that included rights abuses, and cinemas struggled to afford foreign releases, prompting many to buy cheaper Indian films.
The capital’s open-air movie theatres – auditoriums with hundreds of seats laid out in front of huge screens – were worst hit. Fearful of demonstrations, Bashir’s regime imposed a curfew around the capital for several months.
“All the screenings were in the evening, so they stopped,” says Suleiman Ibrahim, a senior member of the Sudan Film Group.
He helped set up the association to promote cinema in Sudan in April 1989, but the hardline conservative who came to power with Bashir took a dim view of cinema.
“They did not outright say cinema was haram (religiously forbidden) or banned, but they took steps to decrease screenings,” Ibrahim said, including closing the state cinema institution, a final blow for many cinemas.
One of the open-air cinemas, the Halfaya, limped on until 2005. Built in 1955, its peeling green facade looms over a quiet street. The only people using its 15-foot screen are the children of its caretaker, who use it as a goal as they play football.
They live in what was once the ticket office, with smouldering Indian film stars looking down from tattered posters. Above the lobby, the cinema’s 60-year-old projectors are still intact, covered in droppings from the pigeons that have made the room their home.
Abdallah Halfaya, the cinema’s director when it closed, started working there in 1970.
“It was a very, very good time,” he says. A black-and-white portrait still hanging in the cinema’s office shows Halfaya in the 1970s, wearing a floral shirt and smiling out from under a frizzy mass of hair.
“At the moment, the cinemas are shut, for many reasons,” he says, adding he is optimistic they can reopen and has heard the governor of Khartoum met key figures from the film industry, although he admits it’s a distant hope.
With more than 60 per cent of Sudan’s population under the age of 24, many young people have no memory of their country’s love for cinema. Talal al-Afifi hopes to change that.
He runs the Sudan Film Factory based out of an airy house in the upscale Khartoum 2 neighbourhood, and he and his team give training and equipment to prospective filmmakers.
They also started the Sudan Independent Film Festival, and are already planning to hold its third edition soon.
Afifi, now in his 30s, grew up in Khartoum’s Kobar area, opposite the Al-Wihda open-air cinema.
It “spread voices, songs and light to the whole neighbourhood,” he remembers.
“Since those days, I can say, I was in love with films”.
And although the SFF has focused on helping young directors and producers hone their talents in making film, he is also aiming to have Sudanese films screened in the capital’s movie theatres again.