Riefenstahl, the Nuba and me

It began with a phone-call out of the blue - Leni Riefenstahl asking for help to get back to Sudan and the Nuba tribe she loved. Julie Flint recalls her three-year relationship with the notorious German film-maker

Julie Flint
Thursday September 11, 2003
The Guardian

It must have been the closing days of the last millennium, or the opening days of this one. I was at home in London with a friend, the Nuba rebel leader Yousif Kuwa, when the telephone rang and a sharp, rather croaky voice said: "Hello, my dear. I am Leni." "Leni Riefenstahl?" I said. And the voice said: "Yes." I turned to Kuwa and whispered: "It's Leni Riefenstahl!" He opened his eyes wide, squeezed his mouth into a tiny O and pointed at the book we were leafing through - The Last of the Nuba, Riefenstahl's account of her time in the Nuba mountains of central Sudan almost half a century earlier.

I knew who Leni Riefenstahl was, of course - Hitler's favourite film-maker, a protege of the Third Reich who had first visited, and fallen in love with, the Nuba in the 1960s and had published two remarkable books about them. In recent years, well into her 90s, she had reinvented herself as an underwater photographer. Evil genius to some, narcissistic naif to others, Riefenstahl had found an escape of sorts among the Nuba, a cluster of African tribes on the faultline between Sudan's Arab, Islamic north and African, tribal south. She visited the mountains seven times between 1962 and 1977. She knew their customs, spoke their language, and said she loved them.

"Hands reached out towards me, faces laughed into mine, and I saw that I was among good people," she wrote in her autobiography The Sieve of Time, recalling her first ever glimpse of the Nuba. But rather than wipe away the stain of the 30s, her Nuba photographs confirmed her reputation as an unrepentant fascist, interested only in an almost inhuman physical perfection. Some accused her of buying the favour of the wrestlers, body painters and dancers she photgraphed, with whisky and cash - a charge that hurt her deeply.

I knew who she was, but had never met or talked to her. How she got my phone number I still don't know, and in that instant was far too surprised to ask. She told me that she had seen a film I had made about the Nuba and wanted to contact "Commander Kuwa". She was 97 and recovering from major spinal surgery. But she was determined to return to Sudan to visit "her" Nuba, who were under ferocious attack by a government that wanted to impose a bleak cultural and religious conformity on them in the name of "civilisation". She wanted to see what they needed, then send it.

Rekha, the village where Riefenstahl spent much of her time in the 60s and 70s, was - and is - a government-controlled area on the frontline of the war with the Sudan People's Liberation Army. She wanted to see Rekha again. But she knew that many of its people had fled to rebel-controlled areas. To visit them, she needed Kuwa. Did I know where he was?

I lied. I was not at all sure I wanted Riefenstahl knowing that Kuwa was at that very moment sitting by my side. She had always had good relations with the Khartoum government and Kuwa had been fighting the government for the past 15 years. I didn't trust her at all. "I'll find him and call you back," I said.

For me, though, the contact was a godsend. Kuwa had bone cancer and had just been told he was dying. He was depressed and furious with me for making him ask for a prognosis. But a quarter of a million Nuba were refusing to leave rebel-controlled areas because of their love for him, and I didn't think he had the luxury of burying his head in the sand. Riefenstahl had popped up at just the right time. Suddenly, he was energised again. We waited a couple of hours and called her back. They spoke for a long time. Then, he said: "What shall I do?"

It was quite a dilemma. Riefenstahl had already arranged to visit Rekha, and had been told that 20,000 Nuba would sing and dance for her. This ridiculously large gathering smacked of a propaganda exercise to convince her - and, through her, international opinion - that reports of government atrocities against the Nuba were false. Riefenstahl had been beguiled by a dictator once before and we were afraid she might make the same mistake again. Kuwa was also worried that government agents might kill her in his area and blame him. He called her back and apologised: he would be happy to receive her, but only if she came with a UN escort - and there was no time to arrange that.

Weeks passed. I spoke often to Riefenstahl and her partner, Horst Kettner. She asked questions; Kettner knew all the answers. Kettner argued; Riefenstahl listened, interrupting only when she wanted clarification. I was surprised and impressed by her apparent humility: I would have thought that she thought she had nothing to learn.

In the spring of 2000, Riefenstahl's secretary told me that she had finally gone to Khartoum. Unbeknown to me, Kuwa ordered his commander in the Rekha area to destabilise Rekha so the government would cancel her trip. The commander, Mohammed Jumaa, attacked and killed his government counterpart - a man with so many scalps on his belt that he had earned the nickname "the Eraser".

But Riefenstahl was already in Rekha. She was given 15 minutes to get to the helicopter, or be left behind. En route back to Khartoum, the helicopter crashed. Riefenstahl broke her ribs and punctured a lung. But it was not the pain that bothered her most: she was furious with the Sudan government. Not only had it delayed her in Khartoum, she told me; its agents had followed her everywhere in Rekha and stopped her talking to anyone in private. An old friend had been killed in government-controlled Kadugli. "And he was not killed by the SPLA, dear Julie!" she said.

We kept in touch, by letter, phone and email, in the following years, but never met: she was increasingly frail and I was often away in Sudan and the Middle East. Early in 2001, she asked me to try to find her friends who had been displaced from Rekha. I looked for them in Heiban and Um Dorein but had no luck.

Then, in April 2001, Kuwa died in England. A few days after his death, I received a letter from Riefenstahl. "Dearest Julie," she said. "I was sorry to hear of the passing of dear Yousif. I wish I had met him. May he rest in peace."