Suzannah Mirghani is no stranger to the regional film sphere, having written and directed short films since 2011. In 2020, however, her short film Al-Sit garnered international attention and earned 23 international awards, including three Oscar-qualifying prizes. The film follows a 15-year-old Sudanese girl living in a cotton-farming village faced with an arranged marriage. Described by critics as the finest Sudanese film to date, Al-Sit depicts both powerful and helpless women in modern times. 

Though Mirghani’s name has only recently gained international attention, she has always advocated for her culture. The Doha-based filmmaker has long talked about the challenges of filmmaking in Sudan and the need for a stable creative environment. As well as filmmaking, Mirghani has contributed to several academic books and publications dealing with socioeconomic and political issues. And Mirghani is not just a talker; she’s working to make a difference. Upon receiving her award for the SUDU Prize for Best Short Film at the Quibdó Africa Film Festival in Pointe-Noire, Mirghani said, “We made this film with a 99 per cent Sudanese cast and crew (and 1 per cent Lebanese). In fact, filmmaking in Sudan is finally beginning to flourish after decades of prohibition and neglect.”

Mirghani is currently working on her fiction feature debut, Cotton Queen, which is an extension of Al-Sit‘s characters and world. Earlier this year, the ongoing film was awarded the ArteKino Award at Cannes’ L’Atelier and received plenty of support from the Doha Film Institute, among others. 

Suzannah Mirghani

What got you into filmmaking?

Growing up, I watched many films to distinguish between different types of filmmaking without formal training. I became especially conscious of what I loved about films when I began watching a lot of classic Hollywood productions from the 1940s. This remains my favourite period. I wanted to learn more about how these films were made, how they were lit, who produced them, and similar other questions about the process of filmmaking. I decided to study more about these issues and completed degrees in media and communication. Coincidentally, this was also a period when the Doha Film Institute was established, which gave me the space, training, and funding to begin making my own films.

Which film has impacted you the most?

The Night of the Hunter.

What type of stories do you like to share through your work?

I’m always interested in coming-of-age stories. While adolescence is a profound, conflicting, and awe-inspiring time in anybody’s life, where so many mental and bodily borders are crossed daily, it is incredibly daunting for girls, who must experience maturation through the physical pain and confusion of menarche. Girls are often never prepared for these physical and psychological transformations and are often deliberately kept in the dark about their bodies and beings. There are so many unknowns during this time in a young girl’s life, which I find full of unexplored stories and feelings.

How would you describe your work?

I like to make films that reflect reality through the lens of imaginative possibilities, those odd moments producing magical realism elements. The monotony of everyday life can become monumental, depending on how it’s viewed.

Al-Sit Film Poster

What are your favourite things to do/places to go for inspiration?

I’m always inspired by watching films. If I could, I would watch films all day long. I have an endless list of films I have yet to watch, which keeps growing longer the more I learn about them.

How do you see your work progressing?

I’ve made several short films; the early ones were completely no-budget experimental productions. More recently, I received funding for my work, which makes the film look and feel more mature in terms of production.

What are your thoughts on the film industry in the MENA region in the past few years?

I’ve lived in Qatar for most of my life and witnessed the state-led film industry’s growth from the start. We’re now into the second decade of state-funded film productions in Qatar, so some great collaborations and productions have been built over the years. These days, Saudi surprises everyone with its mature and thought-provoking films, especially ones made by young female filmmakers. This kind of space and support is essential, and it’s refreshing to see so many critical stories told by many women finally.

What does collaboration mean to you?

Of all the arts, films are the most collaborative. You can easily have up to a hundred people working on a short film (if you give proper consideration and acknowledgement of their efforts in helping you towards realizing the project), so imagine how many people it takes to complete a feature. Making any film, be it a short or a feature, is a long and laborious process that can take years. There are many necessary collaborations at every stage, from research to writing, funding, production, post-production, distribution, and more. When people talk about the film industry, this can be more appropriately termed as the film community, especially in places like Sudan, since they don’t have an industry but rather groups of film professionals who work together as friends and colleagues. As a filmmaker, when you work with a group of people you enjoy working with, you will most likely continue collaborating with the same people, forming a community – something beyond the formality/anonymity of bigger film industries.

Al-Sit Crew

What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?

The two most important things are to watch films and to practice filmmaking, which are the two things all aspiring filmmakers do as a matter of course. When we start, we always want to make that amazing film we’ve been dreaming of, but it rarely works out that way. There is a lot of practice and trial and error along the way, which is a normal and natural part of any filmmaker’s growth. All practice is good practice until you reach a point where you have a handle on your craft and hopefully some funding to finally make that amazing film you’ve always dreamed of making.

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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