- Interview by
- Zachary Mondesire
How does it feel to engage with a national uprising beyond the territorial borders of the nation? What connects you? What impedes connection? Perhaps most importantly, what is at stake? Grappling with questions like this shaped Bentley Brown’s new film Revolution from Afar. The film explores how young Sudanese-American artists are navigating their relationship to Sudan, the multiple ways one might articulate a “Sudanese-American” position, and how both of these challenges relate to Sudan’s still ongoing political transition. In doing so, it wrestles with the complexities of engaging, as artists, in a conflictual relationship to the state. It also grapples with how today’s revolution fits into the longer narrative of Sudan’s political history. The artists’ reflections on these issues highlight new ideas about identity, diaspora, and third culture taking shape from afar. I had the opportunity to recently engage with Bentley about the film.
As Sudan continues to navigate its political transitions, do you see this film playing a role in the broader project of memorializing the euphoria and maintaining the momentum of the 2018-19 uprising?
My first steps on the project were in response to the gaping hole in Western media attention toward the protests and Omar al-Bashir’s subsequent removal from his thirty-year-presidency in April 2019. I had grown up in neighboring Chad, where Bashir’s presidency was felt in a political and cultural sense. My first job out of university was working as an international election observer in Sudan’s south-bordering states Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where I witnessed firsthand the hegemonic domination Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party, held over the country. His ousting by popular uprising reflected a massive moment for not only Sudan but people on the verge of uprising elsewhere—even people in Chad began a small, but unsuccessful, call for Idriss Deby, another 30-year-president, to step down. How could Sudan’s uprising, one of the most significant events in recent global political history, not be given international attention?
That said, Revolution from Afar is interesting in that it is not explicitly a project to document the revolution in Sudan (I am thrilled to see so many activists and artists doing this already), but rather the psychological impact of the revolution—and the responsibility to be a part of it—felt by Sudanese-American artists physically cut off from it. I am specifically interested in these artists’ sense of belonging to Sudan while being “third-culture kids” of a sort, whose parents are from one country although they grew up in another. This was a sort of reverse of my own experience, having been born in America but moving as a child to Chad where my father worked as a doctor. Joining forces with Sudanese-American filmmaker Makkawi Atif Makkawi, who is responsible for all of the beautiful cinematography in the film (all the so-so shots are mine), we were really able to craft questions for discussion that gave this issue of third culture identity and belonging a central spotlight.
What compelled you about this younger generation of artists?
Several of the artists I knew from before. Ramey Dawoud, for example, had played the lead role in my 2013 film Faisal Goes West, through which I had met Oddisee as well. Eilaf Farajullah and I had been involved in the underground cinema and open mic scene in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, prior to moving back to the United States. I don’t even remember when I first got in touch with Khalid Albaih—I think we’ve seen each other in three, maybe four, countries now?
But the majority of people appearing in Revolution from Afar I met through the experience of making the film, which revolved around two summer 2019 gatherings of artists, one in New York City (the Stumbling Is Not Falling art exhibit organized by Khalid) and the other in Denver (the annual Sudanese-American Public Affairs Association). At the time of these gatherings ,Sudan’s future was very unclear, and bleak: the June 3rd massacre had been followed by a weeks-long internet blackout carried out by the Military Council in charge after Bashir’s, and Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf’s, removal from office. These artists spoke of the responsibility, and often guilt, they felt as artists using their platforms to spread messages of revolution, while others back in Sudan faced teargas, police brutality, and live ammunition. They asked questions of belonging—were they “Sudanese enough” to speak out about the revolution? Did they have a stake in Sudan’s future? When might they have a chance to go back, and should they go?
In the course of conceptualizing the film, how did you fit the experiences of their parents’ or earlier generations’ into the broader scheme of young people’s contentious relationships with the state?
While the artists’ parents hail from a range of backstories, a common through-line for most was that their families moved to the US at some point after Bashir’s rise to power in 1989. In some cases, this was done through a process such as the green card lottery, in other cases through political asylum or refugee status. Their parents exhibit varying degrees of political vocalness; some are not outwardly politically affiliated whereas others are outspoken writers or politicians. Generally speaking, however, all came to the US in pursuit of an idea of a better life, whether in a political or economic sense, and often this ambition was met with several generational and cultural walls—this is more or less the theme of Faisal Goes West. Even before the revolution picked up speed in late 2018, some of these artists had been revolutionary in their music, poetry, or illustrations for a while—consider, for example, Ramey Dawoud’s 2012 collaboration with Mosno Al-Moseeki “System Down,” or Khalid Albaih’s entire career as a political cartoonist. Almost all became increasingly revolutionary as protests surged in Sudan. In Revolution from Afar, the musician Sinkane speaks explicitly of his father’s influence on this process:
My dad was a politician in Sudan and he was a journalist as well. One of the reasons we live in the United States is because he wrote actively against the government in the seventies and eighties. When we moved to the United States and my dad was exiled, I remember he became this really calm person. He was always opinionated, but it subsided. I remember asking him in the 90s, “Why aren’t you so hardcore anymore? Why don’t you speak passionately about stuff?” And he was like, “I don’t want to put myself in a noose.” I was like, okay, I see the effects of being exiled on my father and our family. A couple years ago, he started writing again and it was the same kind of cutthroat, heavy-handed political commentary. And that’s when I realized something was going on, a couple years ago. In December, when the events at Atbara happened, I called my dad. He was like, “Something’s different,” and that’s when it really started hitting me.
Khadega Mohammed, whose poem about belonging is a motif throughout the film, recalls her father’s words after Bashir’s removal: “I can’t believe I’m alive for this moment. Omar al-Bashir stole thirty years from us, Khadega. I’m really thinking of going back to Sudan now, because now we can reclaim it. We can reclaim that time he stole from us.”
I saw Sinkane perform at four shows over the course of a few months; at every show, he took a moment to engage the audience and talk about what was happening in Sudan. In the film, speaking to a crowd in Manhattan, he explained why he does this: “My family and friends in Sudan are sacrificing every day. The least I can do is talk about it and say something to you guys and give you the opportunity to go on the internet and check this stuff out.”
I was again interested with what it felt like to be revolutionary in one’s art while physically not in Sudan. But this was now complicated by the fact that not only were these artists living outside Sudan, they had also grown up outside Sudan, as a result of their families’ moves. They were not well-versed in the minutiae of Sudanese marginalization politics of the past thirty years—but hey, neither were most people in Khartoum. But they were learning…fast. Did that take away from the agency they had to speak out? Did it diminish in any way the voice they were offering to the revolution? While some in Sudan objected (I recall a friend in Khartoum tweeting “Can the Sudanese diaspora please shut the f— up?!”), this did not dampen the voice these artists chose to take up, and I found it very inspirational, and relevant in a way to my own sense of belonging to Chad despite living away, and despite, in terms of appearance and assumption, not always fitting in.
What did you hope to highlight by focusing on the Sudanese-American artist community in particular?
Focusing on the Sudanese-American artist community was a choice of scope. While there are some Sudanese diaspora artists in the film who might not identify with “Sudanese-American,” the majority did, and again I felt a connection to this hybridized identity, although in a flipped way: I moved from America to Chad around the same age many of the artists had moved from Sudan to America. The resulting third-culture identity, not entirely belonging in America but not entirely belonging in Sudan either, was a theme I wanted to discuss and the stories were stories I wanted to see in the global discourse. I felt that despite our current increased awareness of race, culture, and identity, we are still generally lacking any meaningful discussion of “hybrid,” “bicultural,” or “multicultural” identity.
While the first half of the film focuses on the artists’ experience with and response to the revolution in Sudan, there’s a shift in the second half of the film to questions around belonging, being “Sudanese” or “American” enough. In one scene from the film, Bayadir Mohamed Osman, a poet based in the Washington DC area, explains:
When I came to America at [age] 5, my parents forced English down me. I was helping everyone with their resumes–I still am. Doing everyone’s job applications, going to the doctor’s and translating for everybody. I didn’t even get a chance to learn Arabic as much as I could have, let alone, my tribal language, and that’s a bummer.
Ramey asks Bayadir if not speaking Arabic well makes her feel less Sudanese.
Bayadir: “Do I feel less Sudanese? Yeah.”
Ramey: “Or do you feel left out?”
Bayadir: “Yeah I feel left out.”
Ramey: “I don’t think you should though.”
Bayadir: “But I’m literally left out. I get left out of the jokes, the history, the conversations, the politics. Even poetry, I can’t even appreciate the Arabic language poetry because it’s completely different.”
Maryam Ghazi, a poet from Houston, Texas, adds: “We’re too American to be Sudanese, or too Sudanese to be American. If we want to try to be more Sudanese, we’re rejected because, say…I don’t speak Arabic super well. When I’m in Sudan, they call me an ‘American.’”
Ehab Eltayeb, activist based in Dallas, laughing: “Khawaja [white person]!”
Ramey: “They call me ‘Amriikaan,’ I hate it so much.”
Zanib, a musician based in Denver: “I hate having to decide…either I’m Sudanese or American. I’m literally both. I tried to explain this to someone in Sudan. They’re like, ‘No, you can’t be both.’ And I was like, but how? My parents are from Sudan and I was born here. So how is that not both? I don’t like to decide. If someone asks me, I’m both. I’m Sudanese, I’m American, I’m both equally.”
Was there a particular energy from this US-based community that resonated with the way the revolution unfolded in Khartoum that differed from, for example, Sudanese communities in the Gulf, London, or continental African cities?
During the revolution, I only met up with Sudanese diaspora in the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia, so my sample size is a bit limited. I remember Sudanese people walking up to me on a street full of Sudanese restaurants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, asking me about the film and verbalizing support for the revolution. Several Sudanese friends in Saudi Arabia, as well as friends in Saudi Arabia from other nationalities, including Saudis, used the protests in Sudan as a proxy space to talk about issues they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I was certainly guilty of this myself, having most recently lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to the US for my Ph.D., and realizing that so many of the issues that had become talking points against the NCP—such as the reduction of an extremely diverse Sudan to a singular “Arab-Islamic” identity as well as the exclusion of minority ethnic and religious groups from national discourse—had been off-limits while I was making films in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, another friend of mine of Sudanese background, but who has Saudi citizenship, is the only one I can recall who has been vehemently against the revolution. I vividly remember being speechless as we donned gloves and ate shrimp, and he told me about how “stupid” Sudanese people were for engaging in the uprising and how he’s been identifying more as Saudi recently. This last point is especially interesting, as Saudi Arabia is immensely diverse, yet people are generally referred to by one nationality, and that nationality is almost always determined at birth. Discussions of hybrid identity aren’t really given any light, and are sometimes looked down upon, such as in the case of tarsh al-bahar, “vomit of the sea,” a derogatory nickname for Jeddah’s diverse populations that have migrated to the area for centuries. That said, Sudanese friends growing up in Saudi Arabia have generally maintained a strong tie to the country, whereas those in the United Arab Emirates (such as poets Jaysus Zain and Altayeb “Boggy” Osama, both featured briefly in the film) have varying degrees of connection to UAE. Ehab, who grew up in the UAE before coming to the US, speaks at one point about how the UAE is a home even though he might not identify as being “from” there.
The prime difference between the Sudanese-American artists in the film and the communities in the Gulf to me is in their articulation of homeland as well as their perceived need to be visibly involved with the revolution in Sudan. At one point in our interviews, Makkawi and I asked participants if they felt they had agency in the revolution back in Sudan. Did they have a role in the country’s future? I was expecting the response to be split, but it turned out unanimous: Yes, we all have a role.
I find this point fascinating. Whose responsibility is Sudan’s future? People in Sudan? The Sudanese diaspora? Those in marginalized areas fighting for a better future? Sinkane offers an answer to this towards the end of the film:
What I’ve noticed is that the idea of what it is to be Sudanese has changed. And the acceptance of who it is that is Sudanese has changed. All of us did not grow up in Sudan, you know? It was very important for our parents to instill in us this idea that “You are Sudanese.” Regardless of what happens when you walk out this door, you are Sudanese. So we live a life of duality our entire life. For me, at least, it was really complicated and confusing. Since the revolution, all of that has started to go out the window. People are finally saying, “You know what? It’s cool if you are Sudanese and did not grow up in Sudan.” “It’s cool if you don’t practice Islam.” “It’s cool whatever sexual orientation you have.” “You’re still Sudanese.” Regardless of however we live our lives, we still are dealing with the oppression of being Sudanese, and it’s bringing us all together.
The moment when one of the young women from Darfur spoke up in the focus group struck me in particular. The story she told destabilized the typical narrative about the June massacre in Khartoum. She insisted that the violence—and the erasure of the violence—in Darfur, be included in the frame of how one might mourn the lives lost in the protracted struggle against the state. How did this moment shape how you narrativized the way communities engaged with the revolution from afar?
There is a moment in the film in which Hager Mohamedein, a PhD, student based in Pennsylvania who originally hails from Nyala in Darfur, shares a story of seeing a burned village and people, with open wounds, taking refuge. Eilaf, who has lived between Saudi Arabia, the US, and Sudan, apologizes for denying that massacre was carried out against people in Darfur. Myself too—I remember caravans of international aid trucks crossing at night through our town in central Chad to deliver supplies to refugees from Darfur crossing Chad’s eastern border—we had denied the gravity of the situation in Darfur for years, pointing to the presence of rebel groups and saying things like “It’s more complicated than that,” or, as Eilaf would: “Oh, it’s just the media, it’s George Clooney trying to get press.” It was a state of denial. In a moment that is completely unplanned, unscripted in any way, Eilaf apologizes to Hager and the two hug, in a symbol of healing that online festival-goers have often cited as the film’s most transformative moment. I admire both of them so much for their bravery in this moment, and I think it is an example of how we can look at other areas of crisis and trauma in today’s world. It’s as if these characters are saying, “Hey, the world is still messed up, but I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
How might your film help those interested in learning about the revolution in Sudan think about the importance of, and momentum from, the uprisings in Atbara and elsewhere that preceded and led to the enormous sit-in in Khartoum?
One of the film’s visual motifs is a collection of videos taken mostly by cell phone during marches and protests in Khartoum, among them the “Sit-In,” or al-i’tisaam, also referred to by the nickname al-qiyaada, referring to the military headquarters next to it. I’ve included these videos—taken either by friends of mine or downloaded from public domain (YouTube) where many of them have gone viral—for a couple reasons.
One reason is that footage from the protests and marches is a very important document of the revolution—everything from the chants, to the alternating sadness and hope, to the military’s violence on the June 3rd Massacre—and are especially useful when Sinkane offers a summary of the revolutionary events to a crowd in New York towards the beginning of the film (an educational segment for newcomers to the Revolution). The second reason is centered around the film’s primary focus, which if you recall is not to document the Revolution but rather to sit with its characters and dive into the psyche of what it is like to be tied to this Revolution while unable to physically be there. In this sense, I am inviting the audience to imagine the power, the vibrancy, and the gravity of the Revolution in the minds of the artists featured in the film.
There is also an intentional contrast between protests at al-i’tisaam and those held by Sudanese diasporic organizations in America. The desire to replicate these protests in America says something about how much they inspired the diaspora (both Sudanese and Sudanese-Americans). Some viewers have commented that, at times, they couldn’t tell which protest was which.
I remember the first footage I saw from the Sit-In, recorded by friends Ahmad Mahmoud and Khalid Awad. People were carrying cement blocks to build a new country right outside the military headquarters. “If we can’t have a state, then we’ll have to build one ourselves,” I remember someone saying. It seemed both literal and metaphorical. Khalid Albaih and others will tell you the role of art, music and all kinds of creativity in the Sit-In; but to me, the Sit-In itself was a moment of very powerful art.
As a Black American myself, the artists’ verbal and musical borrowings from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other registers that one might not only characterize as “Black” but perhaps particular to US Black communities, was also striking. As there was much discussion of identity throughout the film, centered on competing racial ideologies (“Arab” and “African”) as well as the multiple linguistic and religious heritages of the now two Sudans, what did this film lead you to think about both “Americanness” and “Blackness” as implicit themes in Sudanese-American artistic expression?
How much time do you have? For starters, b/Blackness is a central topic among Sudanese diasporic circles, and it comes hand-in-hand with the discussion of belonging and fitting in faced by third culture kids.
At the Denver conference depicted in the film, we actually had a screening and Q&A for Faisal Goes West, a fictional story of a family moving from Sudan to Texas and hitting a wall financially and culturally. I had written Faisal’s character as this sort of hodgepodge of stories I’d heard from Sudanese friends adjusting to life in America, mixed with my own emotions and internalizations being a white kid moving as an 11 year old to Chad and doing everything I could to fit in. One of the questions Ramey and I received in the Q&A, which was our first time to do a Q&A together since the film’s original festival circuit in 2013, was from a Sudanese parent: “How can our children avoid the rap culture they’re exposed to? It’s a big problem!” This comment to me has racist underpinnings, and reflects what parents perceive as their children’s common assimilation into American Black culture. As part of our broader interviews, Khadega, Bayadir, and rapper G-Salih are debating whether identity is truly subjective at the end of the day. If you’re 1% Sudanese, can you claim to be Sudanese? What about being Arab? Black? Khadega responds to the questions with “I don’t know bro. At the end of the day, we’re all black to the system, right?”
As the Black Lives Matter protests went “mainstream” this past summer, my timelines were flooded with people, both in and outside of Sudan, debating whether BLM was relevant to Sudan. The debate spread to Arabs in the Gulf and elsewhere, many of them quick to point out that Bilal in the early days of Islam was a freed slave, a symbol of justice and equality within Islam (and by some pretty liberal extensions, “Arab” culture). But if you have to reach back 1400 years to find an example of equality, is there really such a thing today? Omar al-Bashir’s freaking mantra was that Sudan is an “Arab” country. Why? Why does that even matter? It’s also hugely important that in Arabic “Sudan” more or less means “land of the black people,” as you’ll hear G-Salih rap in the film’s credits track, “Sudan Cypher” produced by Big Hass.
To me, “white supremacy” extends far beyond the idea of gun-toting KKK members to the basic assumption that “white is right.” I remember the feelings of emptiness returning from Chad to America where even relatives would speak about the “Chadian” parts of me in a negative light, as if they were somehow inferior by default. I perform whiteness all the time in America—I have to sound a sort of “white academic” to get by in my Ph.D. We haven’t even begun to dismantle colonialism and the cultural hierarchies established by it until we really ask “What is whiteness?” Is it just phenotypical appearance? Nope. It’s cultural, too. When The New York Times joins a long list of news outlets capitalizing “B” in Blackness as a nod to the histories erased by slavery, then they turn around and apply that to global black experience, how is that move not just as colonial and America-centric and oddly hegemonic as the mindset they were trying to correct? Even America’s discussions of intersectionality assume there are discrete, clearly defined identities to intersect. To me, it’s just intersectionalities of intersectionalities of intersectionalities.
On top of all this, “Blackness” has negative connotations in Arabic. If someone’s evil you say “their heart is black.” Virtually every country I’ve lived in has hierarchies of shadeism. My friend Abdelaziz stood out as a teenager in Chad for claiming that he could identify as everything slapped onto him: He’s Chadian, he’s African, he’s Arab, he’s of a certain tribe (Misseriya). From a young age, he saw no use in denying any of this. His approach was unique in Chad, where we otherwise looked up to Sudanese people as “purer” Arabic speakers, generally lighter-skinned, more culturally sophisticated. Many Sudanese people (though certainly not all, and their numbers are decreasing) look up to Arab countries such as Egypt or the Gulf for standards of beauty and culture. Sudanese people in the Gulf are generally treated as second-class citizens, albeit a notch higher than darker-skinned compatriots from places like Ethiopia, maybe Bangladesh. Racism is everywhere and we all internalize it in the very language we use. A film about third-culture identity among Sudanese-American artists revolves around b/Blackness by absolute necessity.
And this is not to mention the different connotations and understandings of blackness in Khartoum, for example, versus Blue Nile, South Kordofan, or Darfur. It doesn’t begin to address who sees themselves as black, and what does that mean for them? What does it mean when one does not see themselves as black, but the larger international community does? Who holds the agency in identification to begin with?