In a fortuitous event of great import to the preservation of African cinematic heritage, the negatives of an epic Somali film thought to have been lost were ‘discovered’ in the vaults of the Pune-based National Film Archive of India (NFAI).
The Somali Dervish , a four-hour-long 1985 masterpiece by eminent Somali poet, playwright and film-maker Said Salah Ahmed, chronicles the revolutionary Somali Dervish movement under the leadership of the legendary anti-colonial fighter Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, revered as the ‘Father of Somali Nationalism’ and known by the sobriquet ‘Mad Mullah’.
It chronicles Hassan’s two-decade struggle against British colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries till his death in 1920.
Shooting of the 280-minute film (also known as The Somalia Dervishes ) began in 1983 and was completed in 1985. It was produced by an Indian company. The film was edited and processed in the now-defunct Bombay Lab in Mumbai.
In fact, the film is believed to be the only feature-length narrative motion picture produced in the country as Somalia’s cinematic heritage was buried under the ravages of a bitter civil war which commenced in the 1980s.
“The importance of the ‘discovery’ of this film in the NFAI vaults is hard to overstate given that there is precious little information on Somali film heritage,” said Prakash Magdum, Director, NFAI, speaking to The Hindu .
Mr. Ahmed, who moved to Minnesota in the United States as the Somali Civil War raged across his country in the 1980s, had last seen the film in 1985 in Abu Dhabi, after which it was considered ‘lost’.
Subsequently, he had made a string of inquiries in film archives across the globe, including the Washington-based Library of Congress and film vaults in Paris.
After despairing of finding a print or negatives of his debut feature film, Mr. Ahmed was speechless on learning that the NFAI did have the negatives.
“It is like finding your own child back after so many years,” said the 74-year-old Mr. Ahmed, following his visit to the NFAI on Thursday, where Mr. Magdum, along with Ujwal Nirgudkar, consultant, NFAI, handed the reels to him.
Given its ‘hard-to-find’ status, The Somali Dervish acquired an aura of mystique among African cinephiles, .
“This was my first film and it is very special because the film is a documentation of revolutionary Somali Dervish Movement under the leadership of Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, who is revered by the Somalis as a national hero. There is not a single print of my film available anywhere in the world and I am truly grateful to NFAI for having preserved the film,” Mr. Ahmed said.
Another Somali film, an hour-long documentary titled A future for Somalia(1978), too, was found in the NFAI vaults during the search for The Somali Dervish.