One of the most uplifting films at this year’s Durban International Film Festival is also an indictment of Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir.
Beats of The Antonov, directed by Hajooj Kuka gives a human face to the victims of al-Bashir, who was allowed to leave South Africa last month, flouting a court order and international convention.
The documentary tells the story of the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, who fought with the South for independence but now remain trapped in a civil war in the North.
The Antonov in the title refers to the planes that drop bombs on the civilian population there. As Nuba Reports wrote in The Daily Maverick just after al-Bashir’s escape, “As South Africa dissects the implications of President Omar al-Bashir’s visit, and his illegal departure, it’s worth remembering that although the International Criminal Court wants him for crimes committed years ago, the Sudanese president is still in power – and he’s still dropping cluster bombs on civilians.”
The documentary depicts al-Bashir not just as the kind of leader who drops bombs on unarmed civilians, but also as a racist, dividing his country along racial and ethnic lines, waging war “against all the African elements in Sudan.” As CityPress wrote in their review, al-Bashir’s “quest for a purely Arab state leaves the other 156 cultural African groups unaccounted for. Bashir calls these people ‘black sacks’ and vows to wipe them out.”
According to The Mail and Guardian, the ANC described the decision to aide al-Bashir’s escape as “choosing African unity over the law.” But after watching the film, you’ll be left asking whether a stand for African unity shouldn’t rather be a stand with the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, not with those trying to Arabicize them. The documentary is not anti-Islamic; it just argues that you can be Muslim without needing to be culturally Arabic, that you can embrace being an African Muslim rather than forcing everyone to be an Arabic one.
This may all sound like unlikely source material for the most uplifting film at the Durban International Film Festival, but Beats of the Antonov is a celebration of the human spirit and of the Sudanese people South African president Jacob Zuma failed to protect when he had the chance. These are people who laugh after surviving an air-raid, who dance all-night to stay awake while on sentry duty; this is a place where music is as integral a part of society as water, food and air, a place where there is no separation between the musicians and their audience.
As refugee Insaf Rawad says in the film, “Culture protects us. If people don’t release their pain, they will become miserable, without these parties to lift their spirits. When people are anxious and disturbed, dancing helps them get over it.”
Similarly, ethnomusicologist Sarah Mohamed says, “Truly there is an alternative Sudan, other than the fake one presented to us in the capital Khartoum. There is a happy smiling Sudan that loves life.”
Beats of the Antonov has charmed audiences around the world, even winning The People’s Choice Documentary Award at The Toronto International Film Festival and four other international awards. Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka directed and shot the documentary over two years, at immense personal risk. He also produced alongside South African Steven Markovitz, as a coproduction between Sudanese production company Refugee Club and South African company Big World Cinema. South African Khalid Shamis edited the documentary with Hajooj Kuka in Cape Town.
“I urge all South Africans to see this film,” says Steven. “This film turns the notion of Africa as a continent of victims on its head and shows the incredible resilience of Sudanese people at a time of great adversity. They deserve our support ’’
Hajooj Kuka will be attending the Durban International Film Festival, where Beats of the Antonov is in competition. The documentary premieres on Saturday, 18 July 2015 at 6pm at Suncoast.
What people are saying:
“I was quite wrong about where Beats of the Antonov would take me… Despite its vicious political plot, Beats of the Antonov is a story of triumph. The very thing that the dominant regime wishes to stamp out – black African identity – is what saves these people from complete desolation. By gathering to make music in local languages, and pass on these cultural practices to a new generation, they sing their identity into being: a defeat of the Bashir project.” Binwe Adebayo, CityPress
“Every now and then, it 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… is such a spark… 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… Beats of the Antonov and its infectious music stayed with me for days after viewing it… With more films like this coming from African directors, we could be witnessing the start of a new canon of African film.” Dylan Valley, Africa Is A Country
‘’Beats of the Antonov is a true standout…’’ Variety
“Equal parts war-documentary and visual ethnomusicology project… a nuanced portrayal of cultural identity, the trauma of civil war, and what it means to be Sudanese today.” OkayAfrica
“With agile camerawork that dances amongst the colourful scarves of mothers and girls, that huddles in lamp-lit tents and dives into trenches to escape a passing bomber, filmmaker and war reporter Hajooj Kuka weaves a thread where life daily teeters on a knife edge and, nonetheless, goes on.” Encounters programmer Jenna Bass
“Despite the loss and brutality that these people have faced, they remain joyful and are almost always singing. They have lost their homes, loved ones, and livelihoods and yet they remain singing and laughing because they are still alive and have survived another day.” Mia Pepler, CreativesJoint