Sudanese film maker brings reality of civil war to Toronto festival
The documentary ‘Beats of the Antonov’ features real pictures of refugees of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains during the civil war in Sudan, and the endless government bombing.
- In a spectacular scene in the film, the planes are shown flying overhead and dropping bombs. People are shown running everywhere trying to escape in an expressive shot that tells the brutality of the war.
The 39th edition of the International Film Festival of Toronto in Canada, held on September 11-16, threw up a surprise when on the final day of the festival, a Sudanese documentary film, Beats of the Antonov, by Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, won second place in the People’s Choice Documentary category.
The title of the 65-minute film, shot in Arabic, is a play on words inspired by the sound of the Russian-made cargo planes used by government forces to bomb villages in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile State. The filmmaker says that despite the film being in Arabic, he is certain that the people’s actions and their emotions articulate the narrative.
Kuka, who directed the documentary, says he first set out to shoot a film that shows the desperate lives of the Nuba people who were living in constant danger from the skies, as an internal war raged in the southern part of Sudan.
However, at the end of the project, he says he realised that he had a film that showed the resilience of a people who despite the aerial bombardments, sang and danced in celebration of their way of life. Thus the beats of the Antonov.
Beats of the Antonov uses shocking realism to reflect the suffering of the Sudanese people in the war zones, and probably this more than anything else, won the hearts of the diverse voters at the film festival who awarded it the second prize in its category. The first prize was awarded to French rapper Abd Al Malik’s autobiographical May Allah Bless France.
Kuka’s win has, for the first time, put Sudan’s name on the screen of world cinema.
The Toronto film festival is widely considered to be start of the annual film awards season, serving as a high-profile launch pad for movies that have gone on to receive Oscar glory. Recently these were the likes of Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave. There is every chance now that Kuka’s documentary will be among those vying for an Oscar in the documentary category come March next year.
The documentary features real pictures of refugees of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains during the civil war in Sudan, telling their tragic stories through song and dance.
Kuka explains that the government bombing was allegedly aimed at destroying rebel positions but in the process ended up destroying homes, villages and the lives. Yet amid all this destruction, the Nuba people took the war in their stride and never lost their zest for life and danced and sang even as the Antonovs rained bombs on their land.
The bombings were supposed to cow them but they had the most unexpected result. “Sudanese farmers, herders and rebels of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions defiantly celebrates their heritage and tended their lands in the face of a government bombing campaign,” Kuka says.
“As the civil war ravaged Sudan, the civilian populations of these regions keep their spirits alive by celebrating life through song and dance,” he added.
“It is remarkable to witness such a commitment and sense of community that exists in the areas where poverty would be enough to cause one to give into despair,” the film maker notes.
Beats of the Antonov succeeds where other documentaries and narrative films about war and suffering on the African continent often fail, in that it finds a new, genuinely interesting angle from which to present a complex situation in a simple but emotional way,” is how Sudanese journalist Reem Showkat summed up the film.
This being Kuka’s first documentary and his debut in directing, shooting and editing, he brilliantly allows the interview clips and images to do the storytelling rather than relying on narration. He said at the end of the shooting he realised the story was not all gloom and he was pleasantly surprised.
The film, which was produced by Sarah Abunama-Elgadi and Steven Markovitz took more than two years to make, as Kuka risked his life to visit the affected areas from 2012 onward. He spent significant time in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan to film the perspective of those affected by war as they navigate their daily lives through bombing raids, and reaffirm their cultural and physical existence through music, dance and storytelling.
When Kuka arrived at the camps of the internally displaced persons, he always found that he was the only one or one of very few people who hailed from the capital Khartoum, and was met with many questions: “Why are people from the capital not coming here? Why is the only doctor in the area an American and not a Sudanese? Where is the government in all of this?”
Kuka says he had all these questions playing in his mind as he attempted to reflect the tragedy of these ordinary people.
Meeting him only a few days after his win on Toronto, he tells The EastAfrican that it was “the daring of the people and their optimistic souls despite their suffering, that encouraged me to endure all the difficulties and risks to bring out this message.
“I spent six consecutive months in the war areas, experiencing the danger, lack of healthcare and food,” he points out. “Being familiar with the ordinary people there was also very important, it made my work easier, moving with camera and laptop in a very poor area,” he adds.
In a spectacular scene in the film, the planes are shown flying overhead and dropping bombs. People are shown running everywhere to escape.
In another scene, opposite of the first, young girls are seen giggling as they watch themselves on Kuka’s laptop.
These girls were never going to be on national television, but now they are part of a film that will have a bigger audience the world over. Their story has been told.
“The film is meant to arm its Sudanese audience, who after watching it will want to fight for cultural and ethnic diversity, to listen to this music and hear these stories told in Khartoum,” journalist Reem Showkat further states.
“The only anti-war attempts that will work should start from the capital and engage with the conflict areas and should only be focused on war; the most critical issue in Sudan today,” she adds.
“Sudan eventually is going to become this great place, once we allow all these cultures to flourish and start celebrating them. And I really saw it in my film,” says Kuka. “The people in the film are the best promoters of Beats of the Antonov,” he adds.
Who is Kuka?
Visual art has always been in Kuka’s blood — from drawing and painting, photography and finally to film making. In all his artworks he tries to create an atmosphere of music, dialogue, lighting, settings and objects, allowing for characters to emerge — the core of his creation and artistic search, he says, adding that, “Through my documentary experience I noticed that everything is personal at the end.
And when the character gets personal and self-absorbed, the camera disappears and an experience is communicated regardless of words or actions.”
The aspirations of this young Sudanese creative will not stop at the Canadian festival; he wants to accomplish more.
Beats of the Antonov is scheduled to be screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November. Kuka also confirms that the film will be screened in the US and that will qualify it to be entered for an Oscar award in the documentary films category.
The only obstacle for the young Sudanese director to entering his work for an Oscar is if the Sudanese government does not allow Kuka’s film to represent Sudan. This is a pre-condition of the Oscar organisation committee.
However, Kuka confidently tells The EastAfrican that if the Khartoum government attempts to ban his film from the international show, it will be proof to the world that the Omar Al-Bashir government wants to cover up something.
“Even if that happens, we will bring the film to the Middle East countries and that will allow the public to know what happened in Sudan,” Kuka says.