Al-Rashid Mahdi and Sudanese Image History (Interview with Hassan Kamil)

By Hamza Moshood

Most people familiar with African film history will know the late Sudanese filmmaker, Gadalla Gubara – a founding member of both FEPACI and FESPACO and the producer of Africa’s first colour film, Song of Khartum (1955). Not quite as many have heard of his contemporary, Mahdi Al-Rashid (1923 – 2008). Mahdi achieved the feat of making Sudan's first feature film, Amal W Ahlam (Hopes and Dreams), which premiered in 1971. 
Like Gubara, Al-Rashid Mahdi is a pioneering Sudanese filmmaker whose offspring, Amin Al-Rashid, has gone on to take over their image-making mantle in addition to highlighting and preserving his work and legacy.  
Last year (2020) saw the release of Al-Rashid Mahadi - a short documentary about the work and life of Al-Rashid Mahdi by Sudanese filmmaker and photographer, Hassan Kamil. 

Hassan Kamil (courtesy the artist)

In this interview, we speak with Hassan Kamil, about the film and other aspects of his work to preserve and promote Sudanese image history.

Why did you think this was an important story to tell?
The world of Al-Rashid Mahdi is a very unique world. He made the first Sudanese feature film using his own resources. In a time and place where the knowledge and other resources that we have today did not exist, he managed to acquire these things by himself. He's left behind an archive consisting of more than 30,000 photographs, most of which document important times in Sudanese history, spanning from times before we gained our independence. An artist like him should have been celebrated during his life - but he was not. This and the fact that not many know about his life made me want to tell this story. 

One of the film's strong points is that it features Al-Rashid's son, Amin, as the central narrator. What was it like to engage and work with him?
Amin is a photographer himself, who opened his own studio later. He also worked in television, at Abu Dhabi TV and is now busy digitizing his father's archive. He was thus the perfect person to talk with, about Al-Rashid's work. Listening to these stories from him was such an inspiring experience. I learned so much about what it was like to be a photographer back then. But most importantly, to keep metadata. Al-Rashid Mahdi actually wrote the names of his subjects and the dates for every photo he took.

Portrait of Amin Al-Rashid (courtesy Hassan Kamil)

I understand that parts of the making of this film happened during lockdown. Did the conditions of lockdown have some impact on any aspect of the film?
The process of making the film was affected so badly by the lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic in general. This resulted in a delay of the film's release. We started working on it in March 2020, just before the lockdown occurred. We had to stop for six months before finally getting back to it in October. 

The two films that I've seen by you are documentaries. Are there any reasons why you've so far made films only in this genre, and would you explore other genres at one point?
Documentaries are a great storytelling medium, especially for independent filmmakers - due to its accessibility and the relatively low costs involved. Most of my role models - like Martin Scorsese - started making documentaries before moving on to work on their narrative films. My feature films will definitely follow at some point.

Still from Downtown Khartoum (courtesy Hassan Kamil)

Your first documentary was Downtown Khartoum, a kind of snapshot of that particular part of the city. Writing about it, you described Khartoum as a "beloved urban dystopia." It's a very interesting descriptor. Can you talk more about it?
For the past 30 years, under the rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir, life in Khartoum deteriorated in every aspect, and the city slowly became dystopic. It impacted infrastructure, people's livelihood, the environment, and many other aspects of life. The cultural and artistic scene was impacted too: no cinemas, no galleries, no cultural clubs. You couldn't even take photos or film in the streets without permission. The previous regime planted ugliness in every corner. I'd say that they purposely tried to kill the city. However, on the bright side, the newly obtained freedom holds hope for the revival of the city, no matter how much time and hard work it will take.

Memory and history appear to be artistic preoccupations of yours. I see a thread of these two themes running through your work, from the films to your photo project colouring old Sudanese photographs, and the project you have named Tales from a Forgotten City. Has your work made you re-evaluate anything about Sudanese (image-making) history, and what insights have you gained with respect to memory and history?
I can say that the longing for past times when life was simpler always follows me, and definitely influences my work. I believe that photography carries memories of human experiences. It is the most straightforward storytelling form that conveys its message directly. The project of coloring vintage photos prompted me to research the history of image-making in Sudan. It gave me insights into the industry back then, and introduced me to many great photographers and their different styles. My biggest takeaway has been the realization that images are like wine as they become more valuable with the passage of time: they become history. 

Back to Al-Rashid Mahdi. I think the film works very well as introductory material. Are there any sources of further information for those who would like to know more about Al-Rashid's life and practice?
That’s right. We wanted to give Al-Rashid's work some exposure on social media because it has little to no online presence. Beyond that, there is an ongoing project to digitize his work. There are now more than 30,000 photos scanned, with their metadata. The good news is that there will soon be a website where his photography archive and his feature film will be available. 

Film details:

Writer’s bio: moshood lives in Accra, Ghana, from where he writes across genres. He's been published in a number of publications, both online and in print. These days, he is learning to photograph.