Hot Docs 2019 Women Directors: Meet Marwa Zein – “Khartoum Offside”

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Marwa Zein is a Sudanese film director and producer. Her graduation project, “A game,” was an official selection of more than 30 international festivals worldwide and was translated into five languages. Her award-winning short film, “One week, Two days,” premiered at the 2016 Dubai International Film Festival and participated in over 23 film festivals. Her production company, ORE Productions, is based in Sudan.

“Khartoum Offside” will premiere at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival on April 26.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MZ: How to survive oppression and a suppressive environment using one of the most effective weapons: humor! The film tells the story of the resistance of the women football players in Sudan, and in doing so reveals the challenging social, economic, and political situation.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MZ: As I am diaspora Sudanese, I always felt the need to touch base with Sudan and reflect on it. One day in 2014, I got a call to make a five-minute film about women [soccer players] in Sudan. I was married at the time and based in Cairo, Egypt. I consulted my partner and he supported my decision to do the project.

I was supposed to be there for a week but stayed three months. It was the first time I went to the north of Sudan, and I came back with depression and so much sadness. I was unable to express how I felt. I was detained twice while filming and the horror of facing that and the fact that I came back broke to Cairo drained me. I felt that I was in a hole and had no idea how to come out; I was supposed to be a producer and director and still manage to find a way to bail myself out when detained to finish this project.

It was such a deep journey with many important milestones and people who had a strong impact on the process. We had to be flexible, and we expected the story to be revealed through people, life, destiny, and more. I remained patient for four years, going from Sudan to Egypt then to Sudan and France.

I remained homeless with a bag and hard disk roaming around trying to finish this film. Producing a film in these circumstances and being unable to find a channel or entity that [could help] facilitate [without having] their own agenda was a tremendously difficult journey. I bought my freedom so this film could come out as pure as possible, framed by my values and ethics, without intervention even with funding and co-production. This film is personal to me. Even though it’s about women in soccer, it stands for me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

MZ: Well, it’s a very personal thing, and I can’t ask for something in particular because when you watch a movie you try to connect and find something common between you and the life that you are watching. So it’s about the spectator and his or her own journey.

If I could wish for something, [it would be for the audience] to start looking at Africa differently and realize that artists there are facing multi-layered challenges and that our history is full of black holes we need to reconsider.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MZ: Being detained for just holding a camera in the streets. Being asked to make changes to the project to  find financing—which I refused to do even though I was barely surviving. Being the director, the producer, and the camerawoman all in one in a very difficult situation while shooting in Khartoum and working on pitching financing while editing.

It’s my first feature documentary, so learning about the narrative and how to tell a story the world would understand took me a lot of time, along with and shooting and re-shooting. I would like to thank my artistic collaborator and associate producer Jihan El Tahriand and my co-producer Henrik Underbjergfor standing beside me during this tough journey.

To keep the passion for a project for four and a half years is a very demanding thing, and I survived it in a very hard way. I [hope to create my] projects within fairer conditions next time.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MZ: My film main financers were: ORE Productions (my own production company), the IDFA, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, International Media Support, and Sørfond.

Additionally, I pitched the project at the Malmo Arab Film Festival and got a post-production grant in Sweden, Alsom pitched at the Qartaj Film Festival for post-production assistance in Tunis, and the Altercine Foundation supported the film with a small grant as well.

But I had to invest my own money, as grants have their own conditions. You may receive the grant in two parts, and you need to figure out how to make your film with only half of the budget while filming, and the other half after finishing the film. The grant system requires you to have some money in advance, and I had to use all my savings to complete the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MZ: The urge to express my own feelings, ideas, and values. I stayed silent for years, and I was raised in a conservative environment where you couldn’t really share your honest opinions.

I found a space in film—in image and sound—to say something, even if I am hiding behind the camera!

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MZ: Worst advice: If you are not rich you can’t be filmmaker. I come from a working-class family, and I was very angry and disappointed to hear that. If you don’t have money when making films, it’s true that it will be difficult, but it’s not impossible. You[will just have to suffer and make more sacrifices, and maybe you will never be rich.

The best advice: Take your time. Great things need time, passion, and persistence. Research, ask, learn, and fall in love with people and ideas. Don’t forget your own life while creating life on the screen. All is connected. Enjoy the process as much as you can because in all cases it will take a lot of time!

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MZ: There’s no competition. Everyone is unique, and we can’t tell the same story even we have the same idea. You are special, different, and inspiring, and you lead the way for the people coming after you.

Take care of your mental, physical, and financial situations. It’s a very challenging and demanding business, so don’t lose your soul in the process. Stay true to who you are, and you will reach the horizon.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MZ: I can’t just name the movies because I love the body of work of these great directors. Instead, allow me to share just their names because any of their works deserve to be watched: Atteyat El Abnoudy, Naomi Kawase, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Agnès Varda—the god mother of women directors.

W&H: It’s been a little over a year since the reckoning in Hollywood and the global film industry began. What differences have you noticed since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched? 

MZ: It was important for women to raise their voices and to reach out for solidarity, and in most cases it was a good change and a positive turning point. It is definitely important to share the truth and to speak up and encourage each other, but in a way while doing this, we fell into cliché and labeling people, and sometimes not being really true [to get the] spotlight, which is sad. I noticed a lot of propaganda: [the] media can destroy a noble idea.

The more we keep it deep and honest, the more it will reach all people—women and men—as we live on the same planet sharing the same lives.