Cotton versus polyester

Suzannah Mirghani on the violence in Sudan, arranged marriage, cultural change and Al-Sit

by Jennie Kermode


If you live in a neighbouring country or follow international news, you’ll be aware that Sudan is currently in a state of crisis. When such things happen, everything about daily life is disrupted. What happens to filmmakers may not seem like a big priority, but every nervous government feels threatened by the arts because of their power to influence wider culture. Suzannah Mirghani’s Oscar qualifying short, Al-Sit, tackles the issue of arranged marriages. It was made before the military takeover but its fate within its own country is now uncertain.

Suzannah is at home in Qatar when we meet, and she begins by telling me more about the current situation in her native country.

“It's tough,” she says. “Everything is up in the air at the moment so we don't know what direction the country is going to go. And we had two years of just pure bliss. For two years, we were able to say and do what we wanted. We were uninhibited as artists, as filmmakers, and now it just looks like everything's going to go back to square one. And people are worried, but they're there. They're not taking this lying down. They're still protesting that almost daily.”

I note that there's been concern about artists being directly targeted by the government.

“Yeah, for sure. Anyone who speaks out, you know, and anyone who uses creative expression to talk about politics, which is something that we haven't been able to do for the past 30 years, because we had that authoritarian governance. And so finally, we all naively thought that everything was going great. And this really came as a surprise, the military coup that happened on the 25th of October.”

So she was quite lucky to get the window when she did, to make this film.

“Absolutely. It was the first time for me to return. My family moved to Sudan, after the original military takeover in 1989. So they moved here in the Nineties, and I hadn't been back to Sudan in many, many years. And this was my return to Sudan, to make this film.”

The spirit of the film speaks to that sense of optimism at the time. Does she think that there's still a cultural shift like that going on?

“I really think so, yes. Because Sudan is young – overwhelmingly, the population is young, and they're connected. Even though their economic situation is dire, they all have mobile phones, they all have the internet, Facebook, Whatsapp. They're connected to the world in a way that they weren't previously. So I think they're there. And we've had that taste for the past few years, they've had a taste of freedom, and they won't sit back.”

And des she think that attitudes to arranged marriage, in particular, are changing more generally there?

“Yes, I think yes, even though this is a deeply ingrained cultural practice that is not seen as a negative, so I think it'll take a long time. People aren't necessarily out fighting against it. I think younger people, especially, are asking for their rights to say no, at least.”

Something I find interesting about the film is that it isn’t a straightforward tale of other people forcing a girl into a marriage she doesn't want, and there's a lot of questioning going on. But what seems to take a while to develop is the sense that she can question it. It takes quite a cognitive leap to realise that there's another way to live.

“Exactly, exactly. And that's why in the film her emancipation towards the end is symbolic. Rather than her saying ‘No,’ she shows you through her actions what it is that she really wants. And yes, girls expect this because they've been groomed from very young ages to think this way. You know, ‘This is your future.’ And the family is doing it for reasons of love. You know, they're doing it so they’re caring for and protecting the girl because there are no options. It's not like the young girl can just go out and get a job and live on her own. It doesn't work that way. Family is everything, and you have to live within the boundaries of your family.”

There seems to be an implication that Al-Sit is grooming her to perhaps take her role instead, suggesting that there's the option to become a wise woman but then she could have no marriage and no relationships.

She nods. “Or to marry an old man so that he can die. So I like to call it a super twisted feminism because she still wants some kind of freedom for her granddaughter, but she wants to do it within the bounds of tradition. She doesn't want to overstep tradition. So she's thinking, ‘Hey, listen, if you have to do this, you might as well marry an old man and he’ll die and you can be free.”

And there's a lot there that's positioning sort the modern urban world against the traditional world of the village. Are these traditions very much more resilient in village life?

“Yes, I mean, the arranged marriage question would happen all over. But as we know, the urban areas are always slightly different, they have less connection to those traditional mores. But things are changing in the villages as well. And as I said, people are connected, like everyone has telephones, everyone is able to watch YouTube to see that there are other types of lives and there are other types of teenagers out there that don't have to go through this. So there is a lot of questioning.”

And again, rather than monstering the groom and making him come across as a scary prospect, he seems like a perfectly nice guy, just not the guy that she wants to be with.

“Exactly, because in the beginning, when we were auditioning for the role, everyone was saying to me, no, he's like, a young, handsome man, you need this old, kind of creepy, lecherous guy. And I was like, ‘No, because that's the cliché. The cliché is that there's this creepy old man who wants to marry a young girl. Whereas here, this young man comes with the idea of development to the village. So I don't think anyone in the film is bad. I think everyone has their own reasons for what they're doing, and they all actually do it for a sense of progress.”

We talk further about casting and she’s full of praise for the youngsters in the film.

“Yeah. The young actors never acted before. So anyone under the age of 14 has never acted before. This is all their very first roles. We auditioned for two days at the Sundance Film Factory, with an institute in Sudan that helped us quite a bit. For the young man's role, we got over a hundred young men to audition because you know, we had a very successful film last year called You Will Die At 20, which was Sudan's very first Oscar submission, so people were really excited and they think that filmmaking now is a career path, is something that they can actually do to make a living.

“So we got over a hundred young men to audition for the role. And for the young girl, the main character, we got five young girls to audition. That was it. And I think that tells you a lot about the gender politics of Sudan, because young girls were not coming forward for this role, because they do not see this as a future for themselves. Because families are very protective of young girls and probably won't allow them to come to audition. We were very lucky with our lead, Mihad Murtada, who plays Nafisa, because she came with her father, so she came with backing from her family. And in fact, we got two for one: the father is also in the film. He's the driver.”

So how did she get that impressive performance out of a beginner?

“You know, it's a miracle. It really is, because she's never acted before, but she understood the role because she is a 15-year-old girl. I mean, I doubt her family would put her through this, but you know, she understands the concept. People around her are having arranged marriages so it wasn't a role that was too far from her normal life. She was literally acting as herself.”

Moving on, I note that I’m really interested in the way that cotton is used in the film, in lots of different forms, and in the way that she draws contrasts between traditional, textured cotton and the shiny polyester brought by the would-be groom from the city.

“Absolutely,” she says. “When when people asked me to come up with a logline for the farm, you know that one sentence that sums up everything, for me, it was ‘cotton versus polyester.’ You know, this is modern versus tradition. This is this young guy with his superficial idea of development versus the grandmother's ancient traditional knowledge. The clash of the fabrics was the perfect way to describe this film.”

That theme influenced where the film was shot, she explains.

“It’s in an area of Sudan which was a cotton farming industry that was set up by the British colonialists in the Twenties. So already, the location itself is full of drama, it's full of history, and it's full of exploitation, the history of exploitation. So I thought that that was a really nice setting to in which to play this drama about exploitation of the young girl as well. And then in terms of the visuals, Khaled Awad, the cinematographer, he just has this beautiful eye. They don't normally make films, we don't have a film industry in Sudan, but they work a lot on in the private sector making commercials. So you can see that he has huge talent from working in the commercial sector, and sometimes television as well.”

The history of cotton is tied up with exploitation all over the world, but here the people we see harvesting it seem happy, working for their own village industry,

“Exactly, exactly. And it's a very fine line between small scale farming and industrial funding. It's a very fine line between what you want for development in the village. So Al-Sit seems to want no development whatsoever, the young man is full of development ideas. You have to develop at some point but you just don't do it in that exploitative kind of way. And he seems to be coming like a neocolonialist to kind of take over there.”

Another shot I love in the film is where we see Nafisa gazing at the big pile of sweets which the would-be groom has brought.

“Yes, exactly. Sweets, you know, the sweets is the thing that catches her eye meet and then playing with the wedding veil, but also Quality Street. I don't know if you're familiar with this but Quality Street, in Sudan, when a person comes from abroad, this is what they get. It's become a traditional thing now. And if you come from abroad, and you give a different kind of chocolate, they're just like, you know...” She makes a dismissive face. “That has become the symbol of your wealth abroad.”

Did she expect the film to do as well as it has?

“I did not expect this at all,” she says. “This was a small film that we made in Sudan in no time with a very small budget. I love the script. I wrote the script but I really couldn't have imagined how well it got gotten made, because I worked with people that I've never worked with before so it was always a gamble. I'd never worked with the cinematographer or the art director, or any of these people before so I'm happy about how it turned out. And I love the film, but I never expected that other people would love the film as much as this.

“It hasn't screened in Sudan yet because of the coronavirus. The biggest film festival, the Sudan Independent Film Festival, was cancelled that year. There's very few screening venues; in fact I would say there are no screening venues. There's one cinema and a mall. That's about it. So we don't have independent cinema spaces. We don't have screening spaces, so there was no place to screen the film. And then this year, with everything that's going on now with the conflict in Sudan, it seems unlikely that it will screen again.

“I'm getting daily messages from people in Sudan saying ‘When can we see the film?’, you know, and people don't understand the structure of film festivals and premières and things like that. You have to send the film out to film festivals in order for it to make a bigger splash in the world rather than just put it on YouTube. It doesn't work that way. So everyone's saying to me, when is it coming to YouTube? And I have to disappoint so many people by saying ‘Not yet.’

So is she hoping that all the positive international attention can help it to get screened in Sudan, if things calm down a bit there?

“Absolutely. Our aim was January. I don't know what's going to happen now. It's already December. The film festival in Sudan happens every January but everything is in flux at the moment so we'll just have to wait and see. If it gets picked up by a decent streaming service, that would be one way around it.”

We will wait and see.

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