Before reading I kindly ask that you take a moment, twenty-four minutes and fifty-three seconds to be exact, to watch the full documentary with the link provided below. Watch it not only for the benefit of a better understanding of what I’ve written, but in honor of Mr. Benjamin Chowkan Ado and Mr. Awad Eldaw.
I am embarrassed to admit that if the story of Benjamin and Awad had only been a written article, it would not have affected me this much. Due to the volume of stories I’ve heard and read about the vast types of injustices faced daily in Sudan, I have become grossly desensitized. This only proves the need for more documentation like this. It is a testament of Mr. Suhaib Gamelbari’s skill in providing a rare window into the lives of Benjamin and Awad. Beautifully & poignantly captured, we not only see their life’s work but become invested in their personal stories and left haunted by it’s harrowing end.
This documentary proves that heroes are real and painfully human.
There were points where it felt uncomfortable to watch these two men being at their most vulnerable. Like Awad having to deliver the news of being suddenly fired to his wife. Or Benjamin sitting next to his daughter recounting the discrimination and frustrations he faces. Or to realize that we were privy to the last footage of Benjamin before his untimely death.
To watch him be rushed to a hospital and not provided the proper care due to a strike, all the while as a viewer you remembering the films showing pristine doctors in black and white, providing free healthcare with Benjamin’s words ringing like a premonition;
“Free medical services, free treatment. But now, if you have the money, you can be treated quickly. If you do not pay money, go to hell.
Go to your grave.”
Would they have treated him differently if they knew he was the first South Sudanese to work in cinema production? Shook the hand of Ismail al-Azhari? Was the last guardian for over 13,000 films of Sudan’s history? Would they have even cared?
And finally to realize we witnessed the last footage of two colleagues who were so in sync and in tune of each other, having perfected a routine of maintaining all those films, that as Awad delivers his eulogy we see that realization dawn on his face that he’d lost his dearest friend. No scene plagues me more than that final shot of Awad walking home after Benjamin’s funeral, his shoulders weighed down, face outlined with barely held in grief.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at my father and see his reaction while watching this documentary. Partly because I was trying to hide my tears, but mostly because of the deep burning sense of shame and rage settling at the bottom of my stomach.
I feel responsible.
I kept thinking ‘how could this happen under my watch?’
It’s been drummed into my head that all the progress Sudan had achieved from our education, healthcare, industries, history has been purposefully erased. Since we cannot fight for something that no longer exists, it must be rebuilt or created I thought. So I do what I can to show my appreciation and support for the arts; bringing attention through whatever medium, investing through visiting and buying. Yet I had no idea that not only did Sudan house one of the largest national film archives in Africa, but there were only two elderly film archivists who were responsible for the upkeep of the entire Sudanese film archive collection. Benjamin and Awad guarded our most valuable possession; proof of the past. Proof that we had achieved the impossible and that we are more than capable to do it again.
They struggled to do this without the support of their superiors, their department, and even their own government. They were continually denied their monthly wages. Denied any assistance or funding. Denied a single, valid reason to stay and continue a thankless, backbreaking job. And most heartbreaking of all, Benjamin was denied to pass on knowing that all their efforts and dream of preserving the past for the future were not in vain.
But what struck a deeper cord of shame was this was entirely preventable.
I easily would’ve… could’ve… should’ve volunteered my time. At the top of my head I can name another twenty individuals who would’ve done exactly the same. We could’ve easily fundraised all the needed extra supplies so they wouldn’t have to pay out of their own pockets. We could’ve lifted those boxes for Benjamin and Awad. We could’ve built and organized those shelves. We could’ve wrestled open those rusted shut metal containers all under their supervision and priceless expertise, finally paying them the respect owed to them.
Yet who is to blame?
I can blame it on the government and its stupidly crippling bureaucracy & paranoia of anything dealing with the arts. It could be blamed on us, the expatriates, or the well to do middle to upper class citizens still living in Sudan. We can blame it on the lack of information provided to the public dealing with these types of poorly funded efforts. We could blame it on a combination of a multitude of things, but we can all agree that we have to do right by Benjamin and Awad. It is in that spirit we must honor them and the countless unsung heroes who are battling the darkness for our sakes to keep hope alight, no matter the cost. The more people who see this documentary and share it, the more Benjamin and Awad’s legacy is made permanent . Benjamin’s dream is given a voice and a worthy place in our hearts.
I often catch myself remembering the scene of the two sitting in a darkened room watching reels of film, & Benjamin laughs at his younger self grinning as he shook the hand of Azhari, exclaiming how he didn’t even recognize himself. In actuality, it was his Sudan that no longer recognized him. He was given every reason to quit. To leave. Yet with the utmost dignity and grace, he chose to continue to do his job.
He chose to stay.
And I couldn’t fathom why. Why give anything back to a place that clearly did not only not deserve you, but want you? Because Benjamin was able to see beyond his circumstances, beyond this government, beyond this morbid reality & commit himself to a Sudan that ‘could’ be. He had surpassed the label of ‘Southerner’, ‘Northerner’ and was simply just Sudanese & proudly lived that identity.
Because he chose to believe.
So committed to this vision of Sudan, his belief was repeatedly tested yet left unshaken. In him are the ideals and dreams that were meant to take root in each one of us.
Benjamin and Awad embody what Sudan is meant to be.
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
― Anonymous Greek Proverb