Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing is on the wall… | Global development


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IAt the dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned to her country of birth in 2019 for the first time in years. His mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It turned out to be surprisingly simple.

“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: “Anything you want”.

“Nobody harassed us. No one told us what to do. No one asked us for the script. I call this period in Sudanese history “the honeymoon,” says Mirghani.

Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Photograph: Michael Loccisano / Getty

More than two and a half years after the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil in which Sudan is once again plunged means it feels unable to return safely.

October 31, like his film, Al-Sit, won the last of many awards, Mirghani had to give a acceptance speech that was anything but festive.

Six days earlier, the military had seized power in a coup, arresting the civilian prime minister and abruptly stopping the country’s fragile transition to democracy.

In a video address from Qatar to Africa on the Move Film Festival in Scotland, Mirghani said that “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the government of civil-military partnership. “Now,” she added, “we risk very seriously going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression. “

Much has happened since the coup: Huge pro-democracy protests have swept through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 protesters killed.

After nearly a month, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was released under a deal struck with coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

A still from a movie, with a young girl talking to her grandmother as they sit next to a lamp at night
A still from Mirghani’s film Al-Sit about the arranged marriage of a young girl in Sudan. Photography: Courtesy of FilmFreeway

But the demonstrators, who want the military to get out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less than the security forces. tear gas in the crowd that continues to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now in play, Sudanese artists feel compelled to speak up.

“We artists will be the first targets if the military government remains in power,” wrote Aamira *, a painter, in an e-mail from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, without weapons. There is nothing more to fear.

In a meeting with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the gains of recent years”.

It might not have been her priority, but one of those accomplishments was the emergence of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the day, which would have been simply impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.

Portrayal by street artist Assil Diab of former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of the coronavirus on a wall in Bahri stadium, Khartoum.
Street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of the coronavirus on a wall at Bahri stadium, Khartoum. Photography: Assil Diab

Feeling compelled to return to the midst of revolutionary fervor, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made a name for himself by painting the faces of the “martyrs” of the revolution outside their families’ homes, with a car. leak nearby in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.

For Mirghani, the “absolute exhilaration” of the revolution produced creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a girl from a Sudanese village whose parents want her to marry the well-dressed son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s incredible.

“My film is about women’s rights. It’s a social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago, ”says Mirghani.

The “honeymoon” was not without challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and reluctance to defend the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was fragmented: in 2020, the famous filmmaker Hajooj Kuka and several others were arrested during a theater workshop.

Asim *, a documentary filmmaker in Khartoum, says that while in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not so relaxed. “It’s partly freedom and partly censorship,” he says. “It’s a battle about 10% won.”

Khalid Albaïh, a Qatar-based political cartoonist, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artists Fund (SAF), to provide aspiring creators with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public library of art and design. He said, “I thought, this is it. All the doors were open and that’s what we were going to do.

a caricature of a protester draped in the Sudanese flag painting a red line across a street sign showing a U-turn
Political cartoonist Khalid Albaih looks back on the recent coup attempt. Photography: Khalid Albaih

“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years, I walk around Sudan, not afraid of the police, the secret police or anything. I went to see all the business owners in Sudan and anyone who can donate money to these causes. And I only had refusals – for a library and for an artists’ collection. “

Finally, Albaih got $ 7,000 (£ 5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organization, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $ 500 in October, just before the coup. “It was amazing because the internet cut [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send him the money, ”says Albaih.

The cartoonist knows there will be no more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things are going to turn out. It’s going to be very difficult for artists and those kinds of initiatives to move forward.

Women walk past a fence with graffiti of silhouetted protesters
Women walk past graffiti while reading in Arabic: “Freedom, peace, justice and civil” in the Burri district of Khartoum in 2019. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

The blow, Diab says, left the creative community “disappointed and just broken … because we finally thought we were free and then it happened.” She intends to seek political asylum in the United States, where she studies, believing that she “may be of more use to Sudan” from abroad.

Those who are in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a Demonstration in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “tearful all afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He’s realistic about future challenges, but knows people have made up their minds.

“I feel like there is a grip on power and it won’t stop today; it won’t end tomorrow. Whether these power-hungry authoritarians will follow the democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and filmmakers to operate or not is something that remains. [up in] look, because you never know with the ever-changing power dynamics in this country, ”he says.

The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe it is possible and I believe there is hope. People keep asking what they really want. [Will] may the future come tomorrow? The next day? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree that it has to happen. “

* Names have been changed to protect their identity

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