Sudan's cinema lovers long for return of good old days
Standing in his dimly lit projection room, Ali al-Nur longs for the days when Sudanese filmgoers filled the rows of plush red seats below, enthralled by Hollywood blockbusters, Egyptian comedies and Bollywood extravaganzas.
The Palace of Youth and Children, where the 55-year-old Nur works, is one of just three functioning cinemas left in a city of 4.6 million people. These days, few visit the squat, concrete hall whose outside is plastered with sun-faded posters for the years-old Indian action films it screens.
Khartoum's upmarket Afra Mall has a screen and the Palace is a rare survivor of the heyday of the Sudanese capital's cinemas, but many stand empty after closing their doors because of the economic hardship and government policies that followed the 1989 Islamist-backed coup in this sub-Saharan African country that brought President Omar al-Bashir to power.
Nur started working in the cinemas as a teenager in his hometown of El Obeid, before venturing north to study film engineering in Egypt's capital, Cairo. After arriving in Khartoum in 1983, he worked in three other cinemas. At the time Khartoum had some 15 theatres, all of which were packed with people on the weekends.
"In the past, people used to call to reserve tickets and in the week there was a programme with English-language films on Sunday [and] Arabic [movies] on Tuesday," Nur says amid the whirr of his projection room.
Today, the Palace fills a handful of seats and many of its customers are young couples seeking somewhere private to talk rather than the delights of the silver screen. "Cinema's in a bad state now. There's no cinema really," Nur says.
Sudan's economy suffered badly after 1989, particularly when the US imposed a trade embargo in 1997 over allegations that included rights abuses, and cinemas struggled to afford foreign releases, prompting many to buy cheaper Indian films.
Khartoum's open-air movie theatres - auditoriums with hundreds of seats laid out in front of huge screens - were worst hit. Fearful of demonstrations, Bashir's regime imposed a curfew around the capital for several months.
"All the screenings were in the evening, so they stopped," says Suleiman Ibrahim, a senior member of the Sudan Film Group. He helped set up the association to promote cinema in Sudan in April 1989, but the hardline Islamists who came to power with Bashir took a dim view of cinema.
"They did not outright say cinema was haram [religiously forbidden] or banned, but they took steps to decrease screenings," Ibrahim says, including closing the state cinema institution, a final blow for many cinemas.
One of the open-air cinemas, the Halfaya, limped on until 2005. Built in 1955, its peeling green facade looms over a quiet street. The only people using its 4.6-metre screen are the children of its caretaker, who use it as a goal as they play soccer.
They live in what was once the ticket office, with smouldering Indian film stars looking down from tattered posters. Above the lobby, the 60-year-old projectors are still intact, covered in droppings from the pigeons that have made the room their home.
Abdallah Halfaya, the cinema's director when it closed, started working there in 1970. "It was a very, very good time," he recalls. A black-and-white portrait still hanging in the cinema's office shows Halfaya in the 1970s, wearing a floral shirt and smiling under a frizzy mass of hair.
"At the moment, the cinemas are shut, for many reasons," he says, adding he is optimistic they can reopen; he has heard the governor of Khartoum has met key figures from the film industry, although he admits it's a distant hope.
With more than 60 per cent of Sudan's population under the age of 24, many young people have no memory of their country's love for cinema. Talal al-Afifi, who runs the Sudan Film Factory based in a house in the upscale Khartoum 2 neighbourhood, hopes to change that. He and his team give training and equipment to prospective filmmakers. They also started the Sudan Independent Film Festival in January 2013, and are planning to hold its third edition soon.
Now in his 30s, Afifi grew up in the city's Kobar area, opposite the Al-Wihda open-air cinema. It "spread voices, songs and light to the whole neighbourhood", he says. "Since those days, I can say, I was in love with films."