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Sudan is doing everything it can to rid itself of the rebel forces in the Blue Nile area and the Nuba Mountains; this includes obliterating their base. Their base is the villagers who have been forced to gather in mountain hideouts or refugee camps. The bombings continue but so does the resistance, led by the rebel forces. Director, hajooj kuka was on the ground filming for over eighteen months, creating a film that traverses through the lives of displaced people who lost everything. Yet, instead of finding a devastated and defeated people we find a vibrant culture, people who have found new purpose and energy in the face of conflict.
The resilience of oppressed communities holding on to their culture is the theme of this standout documentary
Among the innumerable films lost in the Toronto Film Festival’s leviathan belly, “Beats of the Antonov” is a true standout deserving of a significant critical push. Hajooj Kuka’s short yet eloquent, even optimistic documentary about the peoples and music along the war-ravaged border between North and South Sudan is an exemplar of how filmmakers can give dignity to refugees by allowing them their names and their voices. While music is the main feature, “Beats” is really a pic about the resilience of oppressed communities, whose ability to hold onto their culture enables them to remain unified. Notwithstanding Toronto’s People’s Choice Award for best documentary, further promotion is needed to spread the word among fests, showcases, and smallscreen programmers.
North Sudan’s determined, unabashedly racist war against the ethnic groups to the south has resulted in the displacement of 1½ million people, many from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains areas. Kuka spent extended periods on the ground in refugee camps in those regions for nearly two years, filming heart-stopping bombardments from Ukrainian-made Antonov planes (hence the title) sent over by North Sudan and, almost more remarkably, communities regrouping to celebrate life. Music’s integral place in their culture appears to strengthen ties and form a conscious barrier to the kind of despair usually recorded in similar camps.
It almost sounds too good to be true, and had it been lensed by a well-meaning outsider, the documentary would have seemed as if it were trying too hard to put an upbeat spin on things. Instead, Kuka speaks to the men and women here not as “refugees” but as individuals, identifying each talking head by name (an inexplicable rarity) and showcasing their intelligence as they freely discuss their culture, the racism of the north and the importance of music in their lives.
An example is Insaf Awad, persuasively talking about how culture protects a community and helps release the pain of displacement. Part of the power of her conversation is the way it puts paid to arguments that the loss of cultural signifiers is a minor price to pay for saving lives: Instead, Awad, and the entire documentary, posit culture as a vital component of every community, making clear that its loss creates an unhealable wound and significantly hampers a people’s hoped-for recovery.
Part of the docu’s thrust is the disparity between the north’s push for homogeneity under a false pan-Arab banner, and the south’s appreciation of diversity. Ibrahim Khatir, an officer in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), speaks of how a multiethnic society is a sign of strength (his declaration that the army is just a tool toward the creation of a just society is quite powerful), while others discuss the north’s refusal to consider themselves African.
Interviews share screen time with uplifting scenes of music making, in which whole communities participate in song and dance, even in the camps. Ethnomusicologist Sarah Mohamed Abunama-Elgadi (aka Alsarah) explains that local rhythms lend themselves to freewheeling adaptation, democratizing compositions and especially lyric writing, as seen when a group of girls sing about such common problems as flies and diarrhea. “Beats of the Antonov” unequivocally demonstrates the essential role music plays in maintaining a sense of identity, not to mention hope for the future, among a people sorely worn down by the decades-long fighting.
Clever editing reinforces the docu’s thrust, juxtaposing disturbing strafings with men playing the rebaba (a stringed instrument) and communal dancing. Even without considering the difficult conditions Kuka worked under during much of his time in the camps, his lensing, shifting from smooth, handsomely composed shots to agitated images as he ducks for cover, captures the dignity, intelligence and joy of his subjects.
Film Review: ‘Beats of the Antonov’
In a recent series of opinion columns filed from the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times decried the lack of attention paid to the Sudanese government’s brutal daily bombing of its own people. As if in response, on Monday PBS’s “POV” documentary series presents “Beats of the Antonov,” a film shot on the front lines of Sudan’s continuing civil wars.
The title of the movie, directed by Hajooj Kuka, refers to one of the types of airplane that the Khartoum government uses to drop bombs on villages in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, regions where an armed rebellion endures a decade after the peace agreement that led to the creation of the neighboring nation South Sudan.
One thread of the film is an up-close look at that violence, filmed with evident courage, even rashness, by Mr. Kuka. His camera thrashes about as he dives into foxholes, and shudders as bombs detonate nearby. He also films in the midst of what appears to be an intense firefight involving an independent unit of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (although the enemy, presumably Sudanese government troops, isn’t seen).
But the spirit of the film lies elsewhere, taking it in the direction of agitprop, which is slightly less interesting cinematically, even though it’s in the service of a good cause and is perhaps, from Mr. Kuka’s point of view, necessary. Copious interviews frame the Sudanese wars as battles over cultural identity, with the Arabic northern government intent on wiping out the African culture of the southern regions. Officers of the Liberation Army units, an offshoot of the national army in South Sudan, which has its own record of human-rights abuses, are presented as earnest revolutionaries.
The film eventually delivers a hopeful message (Mr. Kuka doesn’t forcefully address some aspects of the southern people’s desperate situation, like famine and disease) and its main vehicle for this is music as an expression of unity and resilience, hence “Beats” in the title. A significant portion simply presents people singing and dancing, and while the value of these scenes to the narrative is debatable, they always hold your attention. Particularly mesmerizing is a snippet of “girls’ music,” in which young refugee women make up lyrics to popular tunes: “The ambulance ride bumped me around/ Oh, how wonderful is love/ Searching for my peace of mind/ Oh, how wonderful is love.”
Review: ‘Beats of the Antonov’ Examines Sudan’s Civil Wars
Festival & Awards
Toronto International Film Festival - 2014
People's Choice Documentary Award
Catharge Film Festival - 2014
Angers African Film Festival - 2015
Audience Award for Feature Documentary
Angers African Film Festival - 2015
Main Jury Prize for Feature Documentary
Luxor African Film Festival - 2015
Grand Nile Prize for Best Documentary
Durban International Film Festival - 2015
Best Documentary Award
Durban International Film Festival - 2015
Arterial Network Artwatch Africa Award for Freedom of Expression