The Film Holdings of Gadalla Gubara

Studio Gad, shortly before the sale of the building in 2001 © Katharina von Schroeder

For the second time now, Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art has been able to use funding from the German Foreign Office to realize a project aimed at preserving film holdings: the body of film work of Sudanese filmmaker Gadalla Gubara (1921–2008). Gadalla Gubara worked for over 50 years as a director of both features and documentaries. Until his death, he ran the first private film studio in Khartoum: Studio Gad. In light of both a lack of technical and financial resources and precarious storage conditions, advanced levels of material decay were threatening the very existence of this cinematic legacy. With funding from the German Foreign Office’s Cultural Heritage Program, the films were able to be digitized in Berlin in Autumn 2013. The archival holdings of the National Film Institute in Guinea-Bissau (INCA – Instituto Nacional de Cinema e Audiovisual) have already been digitized in 2012 as part of the “Animated Archive” project.

Gadalla Gubara is one of the less well-known pioneers of African cinema. He ran the first film studio in Sudan and was co-founder of both the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers FEPACI and the FESPACO festival (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso). His oeuvre spans feature films, reports, educational documentaries, advertising films and home movies. He documented Sudan’s political and social developments for over 50 years, from independence in 1956 via the phase of socialist government and its policy of modernization all the way through to the proclamation of the Islamic Republic in 1983, equally capturing the obvious deterioration in conditions for filmmaking that went hand in hand with this development.

Sudan was home to numerous cinemas in the first years after independence, as well as state film funding, training opportunities for filmmakers and a national film industry, however small. The economic and political instability that was to follow and an increasingly hostile political stance towards culture brought about both the disappearance of this cinema landscape and significant restrictions for film production. From the 1980s onwards, Gubara was thus completely dependent on foreign and private funding and subject to political repression.

Gadalla Gubara – Training and Film Work

During the Second World War, Gadalla Gubara received training as a cameraman at the British Colonial Film Unit, an institution which existed in almost all of the British colonies. He shot propaganda films, newsreels, as well as the educational documentaries widespread in Africa at the time that were intended to play a role in the modernization of the country.

Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, he headed the Sudanese Film Unit, a sort of state film authority whose task was to create television and cinema for the nation. Gubara regarded this as an important part of the country’s process of self-discovery and saw the medium of film as one way of reaching the largely illiterate population.

The following years were marked by an atmosphere of political and cultural awakening. During this period, Gubara documented everything with his camera: government meetings with General Gamel Abdel Nasser and Haile Selassi, the nightlife of Khartoum, the construction of railway lines, factories and dams. His great goal was to shoot features however. At the end of the 1950s, he received a grant to go to California and study directing at the University of California in Los Angeles. Afterwards, he worked as an assistant at the Masr film studio in Cairo.

In 1969, he founded the Pan-African film festival FESPACO (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision) in Ouagadougou together with Souleymane Cissé, Med Hondo, and Ousmane Sembène. The foundation of the Federation of African Filmmakers FEPACI (Fédération panafricaine de cinéastes) followed one year later. As the only Sudanese filmmaker within the federation, he remained an outsider, a position equally caused by his criticism of the financial support received by FEPACI from France, which he regarded as colonialist.

The Foundation of the Studio Gad

In 1974, Gadalla Gubara founded Studio Gad as the first private film studio in Sudan. As the Sudanese government was no longer willing to give him financial support at the time, it lasted another five years before he was able to complete his first feature with Egyptian help. TAJOUJ (Sudan 1979) was shot in one of the most remote regions of Sudan and is a love story primarily revolving around the tense relationship between tradition and modernity.
Two further features followed, although cinema had for some time now no longer been receiving state support. President Bashir’s rise to power in 1989 led to intellectuals being persecuted, which also led to drastic encroachments upon artistic freedom. Gubara’s film studio was confiscated by the army and he himself was incarcerated for a month. Gubara went blind while in custody due to not receiving the necessary medical supplies for his diabetes. Following a five-year legal battle led by his daughter, his studio was finally returned to him.

LES MISERABLES (Sudan 2006)

Despite his loss of sight, Gadalla Gubara continued to work and shot his final film LES MISERABLES at the age of 87 with the help of his daughter Sara. She had completed her studies at the film institute at the Academy of Arts in Cairo and had been shooting films of her own for several years by that point. LES MISERABLES is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Gubara found the situation of the people in Sudan comparable to that portrayed in the novel. In summer 2008, Gadalla Gubara died from the consequences of a heart attack.
After his death, Studio Gad was sold and torn down to make space for a new building. The around two hundred 16 mm and 35 mm film rolls that comprise his holdings have been looked after by his daughter in her house since then.

Cultural Preservation

In light of both a lack of technical and financial resources and precarious storage conditions, advanced levels of material decay were threatening the very existence of this cinematic legacy. With funding from the German Foreign Office, a large part of the film holdings were able to be transported to Berlin in Autumn 2013 to be digitized. The University of Bergen, Norway, made a scanner available for this purpose. In the initial stage, a large proportion of the 16 and 35 mm positive and negative material was able to be registered and digitized. The positives included film prints and working prints as well as unedited footage. In most cases, it was only the film prints that had synchronous sound. A large part of the film holdings displays considerable material damage and often shows a strong red tinge. Several films from the archive have been so affected by vinegar syndrome or are so brittle that they can no longer be digitized. Extensive cataloging and appraisal of the film holdings as well as the creation of a digital archive is planned.

“The Film Holdings of Gadalla Gubara” is a project by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art conceived and carried out by Nadja Korinth and Katharina von Schroeder in collaboration with Gubara family.

Project Staff: Mia Ender (film preparation assistant), Anselm Heller (film preparation, Arsenal), Doreen Ignaszweski (scanner operator), Pedro Maia (scanner operator), Reiner Meyer (technical supervision, Kornmanufaktur), Bodo Pagels (film preparation, Arsenal), Susanne Pötzsch (project assistant), Uschi Seifried (film preparation, Arsenal), Marian Stefanowski (film preparation, Arsenal), Terje Thue (technical support, University of Bergen).

The project was made possible with funding from the Cultural Heritage Preservation Program of the German Foreign Office with the support of the German Embassy in Khartoum.

Thanks to Dr. Dirk Stockhausen (head of the economics department of the German Embassy in Khartoum), Lilli Kobler (head of the Goethe Institut Khartoum).

Biographies

Sara Gadalla Gubara lives and works in Khartoum. She has directed feature films, documentaries and animated films. She is a long distance swimmer, and has participated in local and international competitions. In addition, she advises NGOs on questions of gender and equal opportunities. Sara Gubara is a graduate of the Academy of Arts in Cairo. Her films have been presented at festivals in South Africa, Zanzibar, and Uganda.

Nadja Korinth worked as a journalist and producer for BBC News in London and Berlin. Since 2006, she has been working as a freelance author for Arte, Al Jazeera, and the BBC. She has produced reports and documentaries on cultural and development policy in such places as Afghanistan, Ruanda, Sudan, and the Caucasus.

Katharina von Schroeder studied film editing at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdam Babelsberg. She works as an editor for numerous television stations including the BBC, Al Jazeera, ARD, ZDF, 3Sat, and Arte. In addition, she makes her own documentary films. Her graduation film MY GLOBE IS BROKEN IN RWANDA won the 2010 Max Ophüls Prize (documentary). In 2014, she directed the feature-length WE WERE REBELS (92 min) in South Sudan.