The Coming of Zein

 KHARTOUM ( – Excited crowds gathered near Khartoum’s Friendship Hall late month. The occasion? The national premiere on the 20th  (November 1978), of the Wedding of Zein, based on the book by Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih. Attended by the Minister of Culture and Information, Mr. Ali Shummo, the film’s director Khalid Siddig, Tayib Salih himself and many of the cast, the film was given a rapturous reception.

An international prize-winner, and already widely shown in the West, the Wedding of Zein has taken over eighteen months to reach audiences in Sudan. Negotiations over distribution rights began last year, but soon ran into trouble. Arts Editor Salah Hassan, and Staff Writer Sue Turner look at the problems behind the making and screening of this long-awaited film.

“From April 14 to 19, 1974 Kuwaiti film–maker, Khalid Siddig, will be seeing actors who would like to work in the film (the Wedding of Zain) based on the novel by Tayib Salih. Interviews will be held daily at the Institute of Music and Drama. The film will be in colour and cinemascope. Please bring photographs”.

Succinct words making the start of the project which has brought the work of Sudan’s greatest novelist, and through it the daily life of his country, to the attention of a world – wide audience.

Though successful, this was not the first attempt to bring the Wedding of Zein to the big-screen. Almost immediately after the story was first published in “El Khartoum” in 1966, El Kheir Hashim known as the godfather of the Sudanese cinema, began working on the idea of a film version. “He told me that the thought it could be a great film, according to his own interpretation of it,” said his son, Mr. Hashim El Kheir Hashim. “Things did not go as he wanted, however. The production needed a lot of money, so he postponed it, he died before he could realize the project”.

Khalid Siddig in a recent interview by Kuwaiti newspaper "al-Jareeda"

Khalid Siddig in a recent interview by Kuwaiti newspaper “al-Jareeda”

Khalid Siddig, too, came close to never making the film. Tayib Salih was at first doubtful to the Kuwaiti director’s ability to interpret Wedding of Zein adequately. ‘He told me, you don’t understand Sudanese culture’, Khalid Siddig explained. ‘I was hurt. When he saw The Cruel Sea, my film, he changed his mind. He came the next day and said: ‘Do what you like with my book’.

Having gained Tayib Salih’s approval, Khalid Siddig began the search for his cast. He avoids using internationally known stars, preferring to find people who truly represent the roles he has in mind. ‘I walk down the streets or I sit in the drama schools.’

To fill the thirty roles in the Wedding of Zein he interviewed 1,500 people over one month. “I used to wander around looking for the right faces, the right gestures. I found Ali Mahdi in a drama school. I also found Tahiya Zarroug there.”

Ali Mahdi, who played Zein, studied drama at the Institute or Music and Drama. Though he has left the theatre and now works in the Department of Culture, he appeared in many National Theatre productions from 1971-1974.

Tahiya Zarroug (Ni’ma) was also a student at the Institute. Sudan’s best-known actress, she feels strongly that she has set a precedent from women working in the theatre. “It has been my fate to be at the top of Sudanese actresses, and it makes my responsibility all the more difficult. I hope it will encourage other Sudanese women to join the theatre.”

Ali Mahdi remembers being chosen to play the title role: “When Khalid Siddig chose me, I had begun to give up the idea of acting, I was starting to feel that, as an actor, the ground under my feet was giving way. I was thinking of going back to farm our land”. Mr. Mahdi Ismail, former director of the Institute of Music and Drama, persuaded him to accept the part of Zein. ‘But it took me many sessions with a psychiatrist to accept the idea of acting again’.

Tayib Salih

Tayib Salih

The role of Haneen, the holy man, was the most difficult to fill. ‘I had to find somebody with tremendous spiritual stature’, said Khalid Siddig. Eventually he persuaded Ibrahim Salahi, one of the country’s leading artists and then Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Culture and Information, to take on the part. “For you, because you are our guest, for our novelist, Tayib Salih, and for Sudan I’ll play the role of Haneen.”

The film’s problems were not over with the casting of the parts. Made on location at Tayba El Hassanaab and Nuba El Hassanaab, near Kalakla quarter of Khartoum State, and in the Northern Province at El Debba, Tangasi and Karmakol, the Wedding of Zein took five months to shoot.   ‘In 1974 I took my entire team – actors, camera-crew and make-up men and toured the northern Sudan so that the film would become a true expression of Sudanese’s village life’.

Though relations among the crew were usually good, tensions built up just over half-way through shooting. Having exerted themselves, the actors were anxious to get things finished. ‘Towards the end some of the actors were becoming tired,’ the director explained, ‘and at times the shooting ratio, or the number of takes per frame, became unbelievable.’ At the same time the Kuwaiti cameraman, Taufiq Amin, left leaving Khalid Siddig’s finish the film himself.

A director who likes to take his time, Khalid Siddig’s first film, The Cruel Sea, took two years to make. Wedding of Zein did not receive its world premiere until almost three years after Khalid Siddig placed the first advertisement, winning the only prize awarded at the First Arab International Film Festival held in Paris from March 23 to 29 last year. Commenting on the suggestion that he sponsored the Festival to promote the Wedding of Zein, Khalid Siddig replied, ‘Nonsense! It was organized by the Arab League’.

Two months later, in May, it was included in the ‘Festival of Fifteen Directors’ held after the Cannes Film Festival to show the work of some of the most promising directors from Third World countries. After both festivals Wedding of Zein received highly favourable comments in the press. Jeune Afrique described it as ‘a beautiful collection of popular images’, Cinema 77 as ‘a surprising film, which shows the originality of the young Kuwaiti director’.

Friendship Hall

Friendship Hall

Since then, audience in London, Paris, New York, Montreal and Kuwait have been able to judge for themselves the results of Khalid Siddig’s work. Those in Sudan had to wait until last month before the film was’ finally given its national premiere.

One of Khalid Siddig’s main worries over releasing Wedding of Zein in the Arab world has been the question of censorship. The agonizing birth scene at the beginning of the film and the scenes showing the bride’s body being anointed with perfume were thought possible candidates for the censors’ scissors. In fact, Sudan’s Board of Censors has been very liberal, making only two small cuts in the film between the press preview and the first public showing. The first was in a drinking house, during a scene between Seif Addin (Sunni Daf’allah) and his mistress, Sara (Thouraya Rouro), and the second came during a scene in the mosque. A few words were cut from the last part of the Imam’s oration – that no earthly power could change the people’s will. Whether this cut was made for political or religious reasons, or both, is open to interpretation.

The long delay gave rise to speculation that the film was running to trouble with the Government for containing political overtones. The problems, however, were more prosaic.

While, acting as his own distributor, as well as director and producer, Khalid Siddig naturally offers his films first to the more profitable markets of Europe and North America, negotiations for distributing rights in Sudan began last year. Problems arose quickly over the question of cost.

Though often talked of as a co-production between Sudan and Kuwait, the Sudan has no legal rights in the film. ‘We have no legal document that states that the film was a co-production’, said Dr. Ismail El Hajj Musa, State Minister for Culture and Information. Khalid Siddig provided the finance, cameraman and most of the technicians. ‘However’, Dr. Ismail added, ‘ I regard it as being a co-production in the sense that Sudan provided Khalid Siddig with the setting, the actors, some of the technicians and, of course, the story.

Dr. Ismail is not along in thinking that in fact, even if not by law, Sudan should be considered a co-producer. Khalid Siddig, however, appeared unwilling to make any particular financial allowance when negotiating the agreement. Talks broke down early this year after he asked for £s 148,000 for the distribution rights.

He argues that the film was expensive. ‘While I can’t give figures, the film was pretty costly. If I mention the cost it might affect. If I mention the cost it might affect the film’s income. People will go to see it with the figure in their heads, and may be disappointed when they compare it with what they think are the costs’.

A number of the actors, including Ali Mahdi, Mohamed Kheiry (the Imam), and Fayza Amasseib (Zein’s mother), would dispute that their salaries had any-thing to do with the expense of production. ‘The payment was unbelievable’, they complained, ‘It was not even equal to the cost of one frame of the film.’ ‘I received £s 120 for the film’ said Mohamed Kheiry. He explained that Ibrahim Salahi (Haneen) had met with the actors in his office while he was still Under-Secretary, and asked them to accept whatever payment Khalid Siddig offered. He felt that the film was important, not only to promote Sudan, but also as an encouragement to the national cinema industry.

Khalid Siddig returned to Sudan in June and resumed negotiations with the State Corporation for Cinema, which was responsible for the Sudanese side. ‘We knew nothing officially about the film’ explained Mr. Fawzi Diab, the Deputy Director of the Corporation, Until after its completion when we came to discuss distribution rights. Khalid Siddig argued that it had been very expensive to make. We decided that we must show Wedding of Zein whatever the cost. It was our duty to promote a film about the Sudan.

Agreement over the distribution rights was finally reached in August. “It is based on a percentage division of the takings between the State Corporation and the director,” said Mr. Fawzi, “I can’t give the exact amounts”, he added, but Khalid Siddig is getting more than fifty per cent.

What of the future? Wedding of Zein has been seen as marking a new beginning of the Sudanese film industry. For Mr. Fawzi this aspect is very important. ‘I have been in the film business for many years, ‘ he said ‘This is an excellent first step for promoting a Sudanese film industry, and should be encouraged.’

But who will encourage it? For nearly two decades private producers have been struggling with the problems of cost and audience demand for sophisticated products, with very little success. The fundamental problem is one of capital, as Mr. Fawzi explained. ‘A cinema industry is very expensive to establish. The cost of buying equipment and building and fitting studios is enormous. To be profitable films have to appeal to an international as well as local audience, which inevitably adds to the cost.’

Dr. Ismail thinks Sudan is not yet ready to go it alone in developing a cinema industry. ‘I don’t think Sudan, at the moment, is able to produce films on its own. We still need co-productions because we can’t do without them’.

The State Corporation for Cinema, however, is currently taking the first steps to establish a national industry.” We see our role as not only encouraging private production but actively cooperating in and producing wholly Sudanese films,” Said Mr. Fawzi. He added that, ‘We are negotiating for money to be allotted, and hope to send people abroad for training in production techniques.’

In the meantime, though, co-production continues. As part of the Cultural Agreement with Egypt it is hoped to start production, early next year, of a full-length, international feature film. This time the problems of distribution should be avoided, as Sudan and Egypt will participate equally in the financing, shooting and acting of the film. The search is on for suitable script. ‘ I have great hopes of this project’, said Mr. Fawzi,’ the Egyptians are one hundred percent ready to cooperate. They have 40 years’ experience in film production which we can learn from.

Now that it has finally reached, the screen the Wedding of Zein remains controversial. Is it a true picture of Sudanese life and of Tayib Salih’s novella? In an interview given to Issa El Hilo in El Ayam last year, Tayib Salih said of the film: ‘The director has exerted a great deal of effort. He has strengthened some aspects of the novel and weakened others. The actors were in their best form, especially Ali Mahdi and Tahiya Zarroug. The film was recognized internationally, so it must have been good.’

The reviewers, however, were particularly damning. After a press preview of the film at the beginning of the month, Sa’adiya Abdel Rahim wrote in El Ayam;

‘Khalid Siddig claims that these rituals–lip tattooing, the birth – are still points of interest for anthropologists, writers, film makers and, perhaps, doctors. Why is he documenting all this? Is he doing it for us? He certainly is not. I suppose he’s doing it for the people of Paris, London or New York. I don’t think documentation of Sudanese traditions is the business of a non-Sudanese. It is only the Sudanese themselves who have the right to ‘uncover’ the Sudan to the world.’

Some of the actors, including Tahiya Zarroug and Ali Mahdi, were annoyed by the press reaction. ‘I knew that the critics would tear it to pieces,’ said Ali Mahdi ‘but the critics are only for the elite. I am interested in what the people think – Iam going to stardom with their help.’

His prediction was correct. At the premiere, the audience’s reception of Wedding of Zein was warm and enthusiastic, with only the occasional criticism. For Ms. Aisha Musa, a teacher, the film was ‘An excellent reflection of Sudanese tradition. It was very striking with its skillful mix of the old and the modern.’ She had only one criticism. ‘Unfortunately, it ended disappointingly.’ Mr. Ali El Mek, writer and critic, was ecstatic. ‘Fabulous!’ he said.

‘Successful and useful on both levels ’ this is the folkloric and dramatic cum poet and advocate, Mr. Kamal El Gizouli’s opinion. ‘There were some weak points in the film, but they did not spoil it at all.’ Some of the audience were worried, though, by the documentary aspects of Wedding of Zein. Among them Mr. Jafar Ali Abdoun, civil servant. ‘As a first attempt at making a Sudanese novel into a film it was successful. I am worried, however, by the dominance of the documentary over the dramatic’. Mr. Usama Aburish, a university student seconded this. “As an artistic work it is beautiful, but it is overly documentary.”

For Mr. Patrice Marie, husband of Tahiya Arroug, and himself an amateur theatre director, there was only one possible comment, Magnifique!’


(Sudanow, November 1978)