Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih has been described as the ‘genius of the modern Arabic novel’. His most well-known work is the modern classic Mawsim al-hijra ila’l-shamal (1967; Season of Migration to the North), which received great critical attention and brought new vitality to the Arab novel. He has lived abroad for most of his life, yet his fiction is firmly rooted in the village in which he spent his early years. Salih, who died at the age of 80 in 2009, has received critical acclaim in both the west and the east. In Sudan, he is without rival. His writing has brought considerable attention to Sudanese literature. Although educated in the UK, through his writing, Salih managed to return to the roots of his culture, capturing the mystery, magic, humor, sorrows, and celebrations of rural life and popular religion.
For many Sudanese in the Diaspora around the world, Salih is an inspiration. One example is Sudanese-American filmmaker Hashim Hassan who is working on making a short film on Tayeb Salih’s A Handful of Dates. Published, originally in Arabic in 1964, in a collection of stories by El Tayeb Salih called The Wedding of Zein, the story occurs in the fictional setting of the village of Wad Hamid, which is in Central Sudan. This short story is told through the eyes of a young boy as he experiences an epiphany, a critical moment of awareness that perhaps marks his passage from a child to an adult. The boy’s love and admiration for his grandfather is diminished as the boy listens to his grandfather description of Masood and observes the treatment of the man, for whom the young boy feels a likeness.
Having received a M.F.A. in Directing from the American Film Institute, Hashim is making A Handful of Dates a priority for the next six months. “Making films is tough,” he said. “Since graduating from film school, it’s been about finding the appropriate story/idea for the screen. It’s taken some time but I’ve found a project in this one that I can put my very best into while also growing and collaborating with a great team. Plus, I wanted another opportunity to make a short film before I move onto a feature, this time with a story and script that I loved. I think you definitely have to have material you’re passionate about in order to produce work you’re proud of.”
“We have a great team on board so far. When initially approaching the adaptation of the original story, I realized I no longer wanted to take on the duties of a writer and see what collaboration would feel like with I writer I trusted,” said Hashim. As a result, he approached his long time friend and film collaborator Mamdooh Salih, London-based filmmaker and photographer Issraa El-Kogali, and cinematographer based out of Nairobi and Los Angeles, Dru Mungai to join his team.
What drew you into making a short film based on Tayeb Salih’s ‘Handful of Dates’?
I first read Tayeb Salih’s groundbreaking novel, Season of Migration to the North, as a Middle East Studies major in college. It was one of kind in that it was the first Sudanese story I read that was fearless in depicting the conflict between East and West via sexuality and gender relations. It took on taboo subjects head on and was incredibly poetic and lyrical in its approach. My knowledge of Sudanese culture was limited at the time, outside of family functions, and it uncovered a new world for me. Not to mention that it was incredibly well written. I was being told a story and a poem at the same time. That’s why I knew Tayeb Salih would translate well on the screen. Because he told stories with a keen sense of visual lyricism and metaphor. But instead of taking on a complex story like Season of Migration, which would certainly take the form of a feature film and challenge me in ways I’m not quite ready for as a filmmaker, I wanted to make a Tayeb Salih story that was conducive to the short film format. It’s a simple and self-contained coming of age story, that, on the one hand, depicts a specific time and place in Northern Sudan, and on the other, offers its audience a universal loss of innocence tale. Also, A Handful of Dates is the first installment of Salih’s Wad Hamid Cycle, which also includes Season of Migration, The Wedding of Zein, and Bandarshah and introduces characters that would play important roles in those later works. That’s why it made sense to start with A Handful of Dates.
Since you’ve been away from Sudan so long, why have you decided to make a film concerning the heritage of Sudan?
There were always reminders of Sudanese culture throughout my life via my father. It certainly left a good mark on me and as a filmmaker you try to find work that speaks to you and that doesn’t necessarily have a precedent. Sudanese storytelling offers that. Not to mention I remember Sudan as a young boy, mainly through sensory experience, much like our narrator recounting his own childhood in A Handful of Dates. Like the narrator, my perception of the world as a child was filled with illusion and imagination. I had no idea about what was happening politically, socially, and economically around me even though seismic shifts were taking place in the late eighties early nineties. So, in a way, I’m catching up where I left off in Sudan, via the point of view of a starry eyed child about to have their whole world shook up.
What message does the film try to send to the people of Sudan and abroad?
The story contains a heartfelt but sobering message. I think Sudanese, in particular, have a tendency to romanticize their culture and their past when the reality is always much more complex. To an idyllic young boy discovering this tension for the first time, the experience comes with pain and an existential crisis. We’re so enamored by the beauty of our culture that it can place a veil over all the problems. Most importantly the emotional journey of this boy is specific to his time, place, and point of view, but it’s also a universal story, that’s easily accessible to any audience.
What challenges have you faced so far making the film?
The film is yet to be made, but it will certainly be a challenge selling this project online. Pre-selling the film before the film is made is an art unto itself, and while I’d much rather just focus on Directing, Producing this film from the ground up is a much welcomed and needed challenge. The hardest part is learning how to be an effective leader while sticking to important deadlines so we’re getting things done in a timely manner. But you must subdue your ego and deal with your team members from a place of understanding and ultimately inspire a sense of care and ownership of the material in everyone, including yourself, because you’re bound to face obstacles. The biggest challenge is really the psychological barriers you may create for yourself, everything else is just getting things done and knowing how to deal with people and get the best out of them in order to achieve just that.
Your goal is to reach US$20,000 for the film? Did you reach that goal and how difficult was it to raise the amount?
The goal is to reach 20K through online crowdfunding via Kickstarter and that’s only part of the budget. It’s really about selling the project to our networks and a much larger online audience. Your whole presentation has to be well crafted in order to inspire investment. Also, having a limited funding period offers a “do or die” mentality for those of us trying to raise money for our passion projects on Kickstarter. If you don’t raise your intended goal by your deadline, you don’t receive the money. You want to make sure you pre-sell the film well with right presentation and put in the necessary hours online promoting the film.
What have been your best experiences with the film thus far?
I certainly enjoy the art of collaboration. Film is really the artistic medium that requires the participation of multiple people to manifest a vision. To employ multiple creative minds in the execution of a vision is challenging but also the most rewarding when it works. It takes time to find that vision, especially when you’re required to sell the film before you’ve actually made it. It’s simply an idea or vision you’re trying to sell at this point. It takes time and care, especially because it’s not your own material. It’s a classic Sudanese story by a well-known author. People already bring their own interpretation and expectations to it. Yours has to be unique and still appropriate to the story. Not being completely fluent in Arabic and being an outsider causes a learning curve but film is a universal medium where you can convey ideas through images without necessarily knowing the language inside and out. The whole process for this film is challenging, on an artistic, logistical, cultural, and social level. It really requires all of your energy and discipline.
From your experience, what would you like to tell or advice other aspiring Sudanese or non-Sudanese filmmakers in Sudan about filmmaking in Sudan or the industry?
You have to have a point of view or something to say. It’s easy to fall in love with the aesthetic of cinema but you have to know how to use the aesthetic and language to tell a specific story. That’s why you watch films to build your grammar of film language. How does Orson Welles, or Kurosawa, or David Lynch or Youssef Chahine highlight an emotion through image, sound and performance? You’ve got to do three things more than anything else. 1. Watch and learn from your predecessors and the filmmakers doing things now. You must obsess yourself with this medium and watch as much you can, including films from cultures that are far different from your own, not just the Hollywood smash hits. 2. Make movies! You gotta start somewhere, just make sure it’s worth the time and struggle you will endure. And 3. And probably most importantly, work on yourself. Being a filmmaker is a marathon full of ups and downs. You must resolve your heart and sift through all the discouragement you are bound to face from your family and the rest of society. Your best friend throughout the process is your resolve and your spirit. It’s what gets you up in morning and keeps you going when the going gets tough.
What’s next for Hashim?
My next project is going to be a feature about four twenty-something’s yearning for an ideal love that always seems out of reach and also how the actions of each character effect the outcome of the other interrelated relationships. It’s about how we may undermine our current relationships while yearning for this idealized love that may or may not exist. I was very influenced by the unrequited romances of Wong Kar-Wai and also the work of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu who often focuses on multiple characters whose lives intersect.