“This is the beginning,” says filmmaker Simon Bingo. “The beginning of something big.” And a beginning it is. The first ever South Sudan film industry conference has just been held in Juba. Bringing together filmmakers and media professionals from a diverse group of companies and organizations, the event was focused on cooperation and mapping out an agenda for a small but determined creative industry.
South Sudan might seem like an unlikely place for a burgeoning film business – as a new nation in the depths of a civil war. There is no commercial cinema operating in South Sudan – perhaps the only country in the world that can make that claim. Yet there is an enormous appetite for local stories. Currently South Sudanese films, by necessity, rely on a distribution network of pirated DVDs and USB drives passed from hand to hand, watched in dingy ‘video halls’ that show wrestling and football matches for 5SSP (approx. 85¢) a game, or screened in private living rooms on laptops. Finding a more organized way for these films to be seen and distributed was high on the conference agenda.
“We are already producing films in South Sudan,” says Bingo. “We need to celebrate that, and screen them in a way that can make people proud.”
To showcase these films, and attract more attention and energy to the industry, a film festival is now being planned. The Juba Film Festival is to be an annual event, starting in 2016. A steering committee was selected to guide the festival planning, with fundraising, film-production and international partnerships with other film festivals all on the agenda. “We are being ambitious, but it is good to be ambitious,” says Bingo, who was selected as chairperson of the festival committee.
For Doris Sukeji Peter, another committee member, the challenges are diverse. “My background is in marketing, and of course promotion is obviously a key issue facing the industry,” she says. “There is a lot of work to do, but we are up to the challenge.”
As part of the 2016 festival, a second industry conference is also being planned, with a focus on the commercial aspects.
The South Sudanese Film Conference was organized and supported by Internews, after meeting many of the partners through a vast network of connections made through the development of a Small Grants program.
For Internews Media Initiatives Manager Rafiq Copeland, the day was a great success. “The enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation in the room was really impressive,” says Copeland. “These young filmmakers are already putting together ground-breaking work, but creating a strong local film industry in South Sudan is going to mean working together. Internews is excited to be a partner in that process.”
Simply establishing the current scope of the film business in South Sudan was one of the more basic elements of the conference, whose 27 participants represented 18 separate film or media organizations. A list was established of the known film productions since South Sudanese independence – with 32 films catalogued – and a plan made to collect copies for submission to the National Archive.
“It is up to us to collect these stories,” says Bingo, “otherwise they will be lost.” South Sudanese films are a key document of life in the new country, and local filmmakers are keen to ensure that these stories are told. According to Bingo, “This is not just for us, but for our children and our grandchildren. One day they will look back and want to know what the first years of this country were like. And they might want to see where their film industry started as well!” he says with an infectious smile.
Internews project in South Sudan is funded by the US Agency for International Development.