Hollyworld: making movies in Sudan

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JUBA, South Sudan — It’s day five on the set of “Salt of the Nation,” and Lekan Ayinde, an amicable and accomplished Nigerian director, is trying to stay calm.

After waiting three hours for the extras to arrive, his scene is now in jeopardy because an irate police officer has mistakenly accused the crew of filming a nearby referendum voting center.

“You don’t have permission!” the officer yells over and over again.

But after a week of filming South Sudan’s first ever movie production, Ayinde has grown accustomed to such eccentricities.

“This country has suffered for 21 years,” he said. “Many things are backwards.”

If it’s not dealing with irate police officers or finding a place suitable for a glamor shot in a city that only six years ago was a battleground in the country’s two-decade long civil war, Ayinde needs to contend with a group of actors whose only experience in film stems from watching them. Like many of their fellow South Sudanese, who have spent their lives in exile or in refugee camps, the actors lack experience and education.

“What would be done in 30 minutes in Nollywood [Nigeria's film making center] takes five hours here,” said Dare Folder, the film’s Nigerian producer. “But I love to be part of history.”

The director says that "Salt of the Nation" is about "the Sudan of yesterday, today and tomorrow." Folder said the movie addresses the struggle South Sudan has gone through and the challenges it will face after the referendum. The film, Dare said, will show that all South Sudanese need to come together, especially through inter-tribal marriages.

South Sudanese movie actress Jamila Garang
South Sudanese movie actress Jamila Adau Garang.
(Matthew Stein/GlobalPost)

The film will be shown in Juba after the results of the referendum are announced in mid-February and there will also be a premiere in Kampala shortly after that. Then the film will be released on DVD in both South Sudan and Uganda.

Folder, who has also produced Nollywood collaborations in Uganda, was instrumental in bringing Ayinde and three Nigerian film stars on board for the project.

Sam Loku, the oldest and most famous of the Nigerian actors, said Juba has all the components necessary for an emerging film industry: talent, actors who are willing to learn and, as he discovered during a meeting with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a government that is tolerant and encouraging of the industry.

“What they lack,” Loku said, “is discipline. And I want to knock that into them.”

For his part, Folder established a Universal Movie and TV Institute in Juba several months prior to shooting as a means to attract and train actors for the film. After paying the equivalent of $300, each student selected a character from the film and rehearsed skills such as body movements, emotion and timing through their role. Eventually they each auditioned; the ones who were selected garnered more attention in class and those that weren’t were given smaller roles.

Jamila Adau Garang, a 6-foot-tall, 23-year-old woman from Jonglei state, plays the female lead, Poni, in the film. Ten years ago, Garang recounts between takes, she was homeless, running barefoot to Ethiopia with her sister, trying to escape the northern army and locate her parents in a refugee camp across the border. For 15 days they subsisted on dirty water and foul-tasting vegetation, stepping on so many rocks that at one point, Garang said, all her toenails fell off.

Today, she is making up for lost time. Selected to play Poni just three days before filming commenced because “she just fit it,” explains her teacher Stephen Yei Batali, Garang said she can now encourage all South Sudanese, through her character, to live as one regardless of tribe or ethnicity.

“I want the Dinka man and the Lotuko man to eat from one plate,” she said, referring to two of the South’s tribes. “I want to encourage the youth to work hard. Sitting in someone’s house as an onlooker cannot help our people.”

Like the rest of her colleagues, Garang is excited because she knows the film’s themes of tolerance and harmony are an important reminder as her country marks a historical vote on whether to stay united with the North or form its own country.

Garang’s passion, however, still struggles to translate on film. On set, every time her co-actor approaches her for a kiss, to the dismay of her director, she draws away.

“You’re supposed to be lovers,” implores Ayinde, but in take after take Garang ducks and dodges. In the background somebody whispers that Garang has a boyfriend; another says she is simply shy.

Despite the challenges, Folder is optimistic about the future of the industry in what is widely expected to be an independent South Sudan. He is in talks with the government to acquire a TV license to air locally produced entertainment shows and judging from the enthusiasm of South Sudanese, Folder could very well be onto something.

Stay tuned for more from Hollyworld.