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Sudanese filmmaker Ahmad Mahmoud on the link between filmmaking and political change


Khartoum-based Sudanese filmmaker Ahmad Mahmoud combines art and culture in his struggle for justice and political freedom. Not only his call for progressive development in Sudan, but also his own limited experiences as a refugee shape his work as a political filmmaker and link his biography with his artistic work.

His home country has faced three years of political turmoil since the revolution that broke out in 2019 overthrew long-reigning ruler Omar al-Bashir and instituted what authorities described as a “transitional democracy”. The situation only intensified when the military sought to take power in a coup two years later, sparking renewed waves of popular resistance.

Ahmad Mahmoud is a Sudanese documentary filmmaker and freelance videographer based in Khartoum. His unfinished film Lifelong Transit was conceived as part of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s “10 Views on Migration” project.

What does all of this mean for a filmmaker whose art is also a political tool? Ahmad Mahmoud recently spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Hildegard Kiel about his work, his previous life as a political exile, and how the films he makes today relate to the changes happening in Sudan.

Tell us about your background and the work you have been doing. What drew you to film?

I dropped out of engineering college in 2010 and enrolled in an extensive documentary filmmaking training course at the Goethe Institute in Khartoum. My first project was a short documentary on an Ethiopian friend who worked at an internet café. He had a side job of arranging marriages between Ethiopian migrants in Europe and refugees in Khartoum. He advertised by hanging signs in Amharic on the walls of his shop, such as “25-year-old man based in Netherlands”, 20-year-old woman based in Oslo”, and so on.

Customers, Ethiopian refugees in Khartoum, paid a fee of around 3,000 dollars and he arranged the travel of the EU migrant to Khartoum, he arranged for the marriage paperwork with the Sudanese courts, as well as the wedding party for pictures, which the EU migrants then took back to Europe to start the process of bringing their groom or bride.

That was going to be my first documentary film, but it was not accepted into the workshop. I was, however, allowed to enrol as a “listener”, and I got to work on projects of fellow participants over the span of six months. Following that,
in 2011, I got the chance to produce my first documentary. The South Sudan referendum resulted in the separation of Sudan, and overnight, millions of South Sudanese citizens in Khartoum became foreigners who were forced to move to their newly founded home country. I made a short documentary that tells the story of Josephine, a 20-year-old law student born in Khartoum, North Sudan, who had lived there her entire life. The film examined the state as in mood she found herself in.

I then began to apply the skills I learned in filmmaking in my work as a political activist. I began producing videos to document human rights abuse, and promoted activities and events organized by a non-violent resistance group called Girifna that I was a member of at the time. I managed their official social media platforms.

In 2012, I was offered a scholarship for a video journalism course in Mexico at the School of Authentic Journalism, and right after I got accepted into a film directing course in Kenya with the German production company One Fine Day Film. Sudan’s anti-austerity protests were very strong during this time, June and July 2012, and many of my colleagues in the resistance movement were detained by the National Intelligence Security Service, or NISS. I received a warning from some of those released that I was on a list and would be arrested as soon as I landed in Khartoum. Consequently, I became a refugee myself, and ended up staying in Kenya for almost two years.

I was a lucky refugee in a sense, as my skill set proved very useful in Nairobi, which was a hub for international news agencies and freelance journalists covering East Africa. I started to get jobs as a freelance cameraman and worked on news and documentary film projects in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Tanzania.

In 2013, I got in touch with, an American organization that covers the civil war that broke out that year in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan. I submitted a proposal to make content in Arabic to target Sudanese people. In the end, they helped me co-found my organization, Eventually I became homesick. I was not able to adjust to life as an activist in exile. I left the organization and Nairobi by late 2013 and moved back home to Khartoum.

Since then, I work as a freelance videographer, producing visual reports for national and international NGOs and broadcasters from all over the country, and continue my political activism. I trained hundreds of activists in basic video documentation and citizen journalism during the period leading up to the revolution in 2019 that toppled the regime of Omar al-Bashir.

How have developments been reflected in your biography? What, for example, is the Sudanese film industry like?

I always wanted to make films. Sudanese cinema is a small, budding industry, it was suppressed for nearly 30 years by the previous Islamist military regime. The revolution provided a space to bring the sector back to life. The documentary Talking about Trees, for example, tells the story of Sudanese cinema beautifully. It won many prestigious awards, including at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.

I hope to go into production by late 2024, and currently seeking international co-productions to finance the film.

You were selected as one of the ten filmmakers for “10 Views on Migration”, a joint film project by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s four African offices showcasing fresh African perspectives on migration. The original title of your film was Lifelong Transit — what was your idea behind it and what aspects about migrants in Sudan did you want to show?

I am now in the development stage of my first fiction project, a coming-of-age story about three teenagers who attempt to escape from military training camp to attend a music concert in 1998 in Khartoum. It is based on the tragic events of the al-Eifalon camp massacre.

I worked at my family’s internet café in Khartoum in the early 2000s. These spaces were hubs for Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in Khartoum, as they provided an essential tool to stay in contact with family members back home and in Europe. I became familiar with the daily challenges they faced, and grew fascinated by the innovative tools they applied to resist the status quo.

When I was forced to stay in Kenya as a refugee myself, I gained a new perspective. The title Lifelong Transit is inspired by this perspective.                                  

In 2017 I got the chance to work with producer Sally Hyden, and interviewed newly arrived Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees at the Shajrab refugee camp, as well as smugglers held in Kassala Prison. Later that year, I worked as a photographer for Caitlin Chandler, a freelance journalist who visited Sudan to report on the EU–Sudan migration deal.

That is when I first met Fiury, who helped arrange a Tigrinya translator for us in Shajrab. I became interested in her story because it sounded very similar to my own experience in Nairobi. Fiury is fully aware of her potential and lives in a state of constant resistance against conditions designed to diminish it. I started filming her in early 2018, and after my time in Tunis at the 10 Views on Migration workshop with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, I received a portion of the necessary funding to start producing the film.

What happened then? There are reasons that your film couldn’t be completed. Can you can tell us a bit about what you went through together with many of your colleagues?

By December 2018, the protests picked up and the government of Omar al-Bashir took extreme measures to crush it, including shutting down the internet. I was arrested in early January 2019 and released in February. The momentum of the protests was growing despite the crackdown, and in March a state of emergency and curfew were declared.

On 6 April 2019, we successfully established a sit-in and occupied the areas surrounding the Sudan Army’s headquarters in Khartoum. Similar sit-ins popped up in all the major cities around the country, and by 11 April Al-Bashir was removed and arrested and a Military Council with a new president— also an army officer — was announced.

The sit-in continued despite this, as our goal was to completely remove the army from the political process.

We stood our ground against the Military Council’s attempts to disperse the sit-ins for 58 days. This culminated in the brutal massacre on the morning of 3 June — more than 100 protesters were killed in Khartoum alone, and many more were wounded and others remain missing to this day. I miraculously survived that morning.

Throughout the month of June, Khartoum became a military warzone. A curfew and state of emergency were declared, and the internet was completely shut down. But we weren’t broken under these conditions. We organized massive marches on 30 June, when millions took to the streets across the country. We broke the military’s will and forced it into a power-sharing deal with our civilian politicians representatives in July 2019.

The deal was flawed — our civilian representatives are reformists, while the streets are extremely revolutionary. The protests continued throughout 2020 and 2021.

What is the political situation like in Sudan at the moment? What happened over the years leading up to the current situation? How has this impacted migrants and refugees in Sudan?

On 25 October 2021, the military took over in a coup. Protests have been ongoing. By March 2022, more than 80 protesters had been killed. The anti-military protests, organized and mobilized for by Resistance Committees, had been happening even before the October coup during the three years that followed the toppling of Omar al-Bashir.

The refugees were hit hard by the political turmoil, but the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an additional huge blow. The UNHCR did not cater well to their needs, and in October 2020, the migrants organized a sit-in in front of UNHCR headquarters in Khartoum to demand improvements.

This move was not the first time, as migrants attempted political direct action even during al-Bashir’s rule, but this time it was different because they had far more support from the revolutionary movements and groups in Sudan. One such group in particular was the Sudan Workers’ Newsletter, which provided necessary media coverage and support, as well as the leftist revolutionary organization Gidaam. The sit-in was violently dispersed on 15 December 2021, marking it as one more red flag that Sudan’s so-called “transitional democracy” was a lie.

Currently, under the constant protests against the military coup, it is unclear what the situation is like for the migrant and refugee communities in Khartoum.

What is the impact on you and on your work as a filmmaker? What are your dreams and hopes for yourself, your work, and your country? Where do you see your role as a progressive film maker?

I firmly believe revolutions are kept alive by stories.

History has shown that defeat happens when the people lose their grip on their narrative — it is therefore a great motivation for me to continue my work as a filmmaker, as film is one of the most powerful tools to shape the stories fuelling the struggle for a better life and better world.

I also believe in the power of the collective act of film watching. Sudanese people have been denied access to public cinema theatres for the past few decades, and I believe it is essential to innovate accessible and democratic spaces to watch and discuss our cinema as well as the world’s cinema.