Taghreed Elsanhouri, of northern Sudanese origins, discusses her first three films, her Sudanese identity, and her latest work about the transmutation of Sudan into two nations.
Taghreed, you were born in Sudan and moved to Britain with your parents as a young child. What does a Sudanese identity mean to you? Your experience as an Anglo-Sudanese, how does it inform your work?
My Sudanese identity has meant different things to me at different stages in my life. I have, I think at various stages tried to deny it then to find it and reclaim it and finally now I think to be at peace with it. I think the tension about my Sudanese identity and what it means to me has been at the source of my creativity.
Your three previous films, All about Darfur, Orphanage of Mygoma and Mother Unknown, reveal your exploration with Sudan and in many ways they were about your rediscovery of your country--of course Orphanage of Mygoma has been life changing. What were your experiences with the films and your journey while making them?
I think through the journey of all three films I was still very much a guest of Sudanese culture and identity, treading carefully, cautiously not wanting to unintentionally offend, and seeking to please everyone. It is only now after living in Sudan for 3 years that I feel I have come to know my own voice and to feel comfortable and assertive in it.
What has been the reception of these films?
The international festival circuit received All About Darfur very warmly, I think the film’s inside perspective was new and refreshing. The film was also much praised in Africa where it won a prize at ZIFF (Zanzibar International Film Festival) and at the Kenyan film festival. In Africa in particular I think it was so much appreciated for the platform it gave for ordinary Sudanese voices to be heard. The film gave dignity and voice to a host of characters that we normally see spoken about by experts but that we never hear speaking in their own words. I am proud of making that film with a budget of no more than 20USD.
Orphans of Mygoma was commissioned for Aljazeera Witness and I think apart from changing my life the film has had a positive impact here in Sudan where it has opened the debate regarding the social stigma facing illegitimate children and inspired many young people to fundraise for the Mygoma orphanage.
Mother Unknown premiered at ZIFF where it won the UNICEF Child Rights Award and then went on to the Dubai International Film Festival where it had a mixed reception. I think in that film (as a practicing Muslim myself) I had wanted to understand or explore how a Muslim society could humanely and constructively deal with the issue of un-wed mothers and the stigma for them and their babies from within the value system of a Muslim society. But I think I was not yet ready as a filmmaker to deal with the complexity and moral ambivalence excavating the issue began to reveal. It is a piece of work that by my own estimation has failed but that failure was absolutely necessary as preparation for my next big film…
Your latest film Our Beloved Sudan examines the history of a nation and its evolution into two countries, Sudan and South Sudan. What inspired you to make the film?
Ever since 2005 when I was making All About Darfur and the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] was signed I knew something momentous had been set in motion for Sudan and I felt the weight and the importance of the times and I also felt a responsibility to be conscious and reflective and to make my own draft of this moment as it unfolded. I began to film two years ago when the first national election in 23 years took place. I think Sudan and the Sudanese were in a state of disbelief regarding the possible partition of their country and now we are in a state of shock and hopefully after the shock will come reflection, analysis, atonement, forgiveness and a laying to rest of all the things that divided us as a people and made the partition of Sudan inevitable…
What would you like the viewers to get from the film?
I think I would like viewers to get an insight into the complexity of the dynamics at play in Sudan, I mean the racial, political, religious and economic dynamics. Also I hope viewers will feel compassion for this very difficult situation. The breakup of a nation is like the breakup of a home. Sometimes the only healthy option is for people to go their separate ways but there is always regret and the question what if and if only…
While your origins are northern Sudanese, you are very attached to the South, your son Abdelsamih has origins there. What are your feelings about the separation of Sudan and to what extent does it mean a renegotiation of identity for you and the Sudanese Diaspora?
Regarding the separation I feel we had enough time since independence in 1956 to figure out how to forge a unifying identity. We failed and the consequence has been partition. My concern is about whether we will have the maturity and the leadership to create two new stable nations or whether both new entities will become failed states with all the destructive fallout and suffering that such an outcome implies.
While my origins are northern Sudanese I have been shaped by my experience as an ethnic minority in the UK. My empathy for the condition of Southerners and other marginalized people in Sudan comes from this minority consciousness. Having lived with racism as a Black British and experienced the undermining and destructive impact of racism first hand in my own life I am compelled to speak out when I see it in Sudan from my reversed vantage point here as member of the dominant group.
Abdalsamih my son is ethnically from Darfur and I would like for him to have spiritual and cultural links to the place that he is racially from. Growing up in the UK I saw myself as a Black woman and intellectually and spiritually I have been shaped by the work of Black American women like Toni Morrison. African literature has also been crucial to forging my identity in Diaspora. Arabic however is my mother tongue and even though I am more fluent in English I feel my Arab and Muslim heritage is intrinsic to who I am as well. As a northern Sudanese I am racially both Arab and African and the two coexist side by side for me and are a source of cultural and creative wealth.
Interview with Taghreed Elsanhouri by Beti Ellerson, November 2011
Our Beloved Sudan Facebook Page
Taghreed Elsanhouri’s Sudan on the African Women in Cinema Blog
All About Darfur (California Newsreel)