Unlike Anything I’ve Seen Before

The Sudanese film, "Beats of the Antonov," explores the connections between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture.

Still from "Beats of the Antonov."

Every now and then, its seems as if there is nothing new out there. Everything seems derivative, repetitive or just plain bland. As a filmmaker, I sometimes go through moments of extreme lack of inspiration; and even question my choice of career. And then an unexpected spark happens to light the way. Beats of the Antonov, a new documentary from Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, is such a spark. The film premiered last week at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is the second film by a Sudanese filmmaker to screen there. (The first Sudanese film at TIFF was All about Darfur by Taghreed Elsanhouri in 2005.)

I wasn’t surprised when last night the film won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the TIFF. Kuka paints a beautiful picture of music, war and identity in the Blue Nile and Nuba regions, and the film is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Here’s the trailer:

The Antonov of the title comes from the Russian planes that are used by Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to bomb villages in Sudan. Instead of a dry journalistic account of the ongoing Sudanese conflict however, the film is a deep exploration of a nation in an identity crisis, with its ruling elite pushing an Arab nationalist identity onto a diverse African citizenry. The title of the film makes a correlation between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture, the music of a people and the suffering they endure.

The film uses a non-linear narrative style, not following any particular series of events, but rather is a collection of vignettes, many of which spring from spontaneous jam sessions in refugee camps. Kuka, who has also been a war reporter, caught the inspiration for the film while spending time in one of the refugee camps in the Blue Nile region. “The music sounded different than any other Sudanese music I had ever heard before, because they were made from found objects in the refugee camp,” Kuka told me over a coffee in Cape Town, where he finished post-production on the film, working with Big World Cinema producer Steven Markovitz and editor Khalid Shamis. “They created this contraption where they connected home made instruments to an old radio. They had created a new sound. It was amazing, and this is why I made the film; I fell in love with the music. It’s Sudanese music, but it’s a unique mixture of Sudanese traditional music that was born in a refugee camp. I was afraid that they didn’t realize how amazing this music was.”

In addition to head bopping jam sessions with instruments made of pipes, plates and old tires, some of the most compelling music in the film is the genre of “girl’s music” sung by the young women in the region. They are both oral history and snapshots of modern life. One of the songs deals with young men who are really just teenagers being sent to fight in the Sudanese Liberation Army, with haunting lyrics like “those boots are too big for you.”

The film also takes a long hard look at what it means to be Sudanese today, and confronts the Arabization of Sudanese identity, an ideological displacement running as an undercurrent to the physical displacement of the refugees in Sudan. “Bashir himself is not that identity he wants to be,” Kuka says, and explains that with his long dreads and afro-centric mindset, he gets flack for not fitting the prescribed national identity. “Very few people fit this image of what is Sudanese. You have this fake image and 5% of the population fit it, and then you have 95% of people who are trying to fit it.”

One of the characters in the film is a young musician and ethnomusicologist named Alsara, named by Addis Rumble as “the princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.” Alsarah, now based in Brooklyn, New York , has returned to Sudan to do field recordings and research in the Nuba region. In a traditional narrative documentary, it would have been an obvious choice to follow her on her journey to record the music and bring it to the West, however Kuka avoided making her or any single interviewee the subject of the film. “It’s normal for us to meet a lot of people in real life, so you meet a lot of people in this film. You don’t need one-character-driven stories. It’s not my style and I don’t think it’s needed… talking to a lot of people and talking to them in a way that’s less definitive will give you the experience of living this.”

The film succeeds in this endeavor, instead of telling you what to think about the Sudanese conflict, it gives you a sense of the realities on the ground, a feeling for the place, and the kinds of issues which people are thinking through. A person I know who saw the film said you had to experience the film with your heart, and not your head. Beats of the Antonov and its infectious music stayed with me for days after viewing it. Rather than giving any answers in this film, Hajooj Kuka asks a lot of important questions. “At the end what I want people to leave with is this complex idea of Sudan, rather than the simplified notion that the media gives you.” Kuka plans to expand into features in the future, and is excited about developing a unique voice and style. With more films like this coming from African directors, we could be witnessing the start of a new canon of African film.

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