“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
– Michael Curtiz, Casablanca, 1942
The Longest Kiss is a feature documentary by Canadian filmmaker Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque, which follows six young Sudanese looking for a place to call “home” in the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence. Lévesque, who works for the United Nations and has co-founded a non-governmental organization focused on media development, first spent six months in Sudan in 2006 when she was involved in launching the UN’s radio station Miraya. In 2008, she returned as the Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust (now BBC Media Action) before resuming her work with Radio Miraya: in total, she spent nearly three years in Khartoum and Juba before the South’s independence.
Covering the years 2009-2011, the film is mostly set in Khartoum, where the White and Blue Nile meet in what Arabic poetry describes as “the longest kiss in history”. It also reveals glimpses of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. As Sudanese identity became more elusive than ever and society simmered with growing intolerance, the film draws the intimate portrait of a nation about to become two peoples and captures, with equal finesse, the complexities of individual lives and the birth of the world’s 193rd state.
“My dear love –” the film begins, as we gaze through an amjad window, suitably opaque with dirt, at the Nile lazing in the sunset. The low, cadenced tone is that of Abubakr, a young man which will be one of the main characters but also the narrator of the documentary. The letter, co-written with Lévesque, includes some of the most beautiful lines from al-Saddiq al-Raddi’s Poem of the Nile. It is read throughout the film and addressed to his lover, his country or both.
Who is his lover, and what is Sudan are questions which, depending on interpretation, remain unanswered. The story begins in June 2009 with a separation (Abubakr’s fiancée has left him) and ends with another one: the independence of the South in 2011. Abubakr is determined to “rebuild [his] life” and, for a start, he builds a new house. You would think this was staged to convey South Sudan’s pending independence and its need to build itself from scratch – except it wasn’t. By chance, Abubakr, a close friend of Lévesque, was going through the same heartbreak as his country. Without giving away the plot, as the story unravels Abubakr’s love life becomes metonymic of the fate of his nation – or perhaps it is the other way around.
This is one of the main features of the film: according to Lévesque, most of the scenes were spontaneously filmed and none of them rehearsed, yet every sequence is somehow reminiscent of the wider issues at stake. The banal (a break-up, a girl praying, a conversation over tea…) takes on a quasi-metaphorical dimension as the country’s transmutations are in everybody’s mind. This duality is visually suggested by shifts between close-ups and panoramic shots, and often the hand-held camera offers us the characters’ literal point of view. One moment we dance with Lucy (Levesque’s colleague at radio Miraya) on her wedding day or sit by little Chol as he flicks through the photo-album of his improbable destiny: a street-child in the South, he was adopted by a mixed Spanish and Honduran couple and is now living in Khartoum, diligently (and quite effortlessly) learning his fourth language. The other, we contemplate the Nile from an aerial view, or the fields near Haj Yousif on the capital’s outskirts. The proximity and trust between the director and characters is evident: when questioned on this topic, Lévesque answered that had she not developed a friendship with the people featured in the film, it would have been entirely different. Moreover, the latter is in Arabic, with subtitles in either French or English, so that the words and voices of the characters are not marred by dubbing. Rather than passive subjects of a documentary, the characters become, in turn, the documenters of their lives and of their nations’ history.
Love is a leitmotiv which imbues every story throughout the film. Whether romantic, filial, maternal or sisterly, it emerges naturally along the conversations. The characters’ affection for their country is also evident. “O Sudan,” Abubakr reads, “how many people must die before we get to live in peace? You used to say that if we couldn’t be happy together, we should go our separate ways. I used to think we could stay together forever as long as there was love, tolerance and understanding.” Abubakr’s letter to Sudan is also the lament of a people who, some having fought for separation while others believed in unity, approach their fate with the dread of lovers coming to terms with a failed relationship.
The film is also steeped in politics and religion, two main components of Sudanese identity, and notions which permeate many aspects of society. Abubakr for instance curses the “twenty years of Omar al-Bashir’s rule, with his un-Islamic sharia law”. Chol speaks of conflict with the simple eloquence and insight of a child: “War, war war. All because of money, all because of weapons, all because of places, all because of other people.” Hajjir, through her own contradictions, exemplifies the complexity of Sudanese society: a twenty-something young woman with a nose piercing and an impressive collection of makeup, she enjoys dancing, watching Christmas-themed American shows and works long hours as a hospital nurse. The strength of her faith matches her personality: she explains that her choice to wear a niqaab sometimes triggers questions from her peers, but little does she care: determined not to let anyone put her down because of her faith nor for being a woman, she looks for a man who will be able to stand up to her parents, strict followers of the hard-line sect Ansar al-Sunna. And though she says that “it is a good thing that most Sudanese are Muslims,” she admires the late Southern rebel leader John Garang, his political courage and his vision of Sudanese unity.
The essence of Sudanese identity remains an enigma - including to the Sudanese portrayed. At one point, Abubakr asks: “Who are we now? Are we Arabs? Are we Africans?” Some believe that the intolerance, and the reason for separation, is “all about religion.” Others have more nationalist claims. Abubakr’s father, a Northerner, tells us over tea that he would readily drive his own neighbor out of the country if independence was voted; for him, “Southerner” now rhymes with “foreigner”. At other times, the transition is less evident: Lucy’s father is from the South and a Christian, and her mother, a Muslim, is from the Northern region of Halfa. Her family is, in her own words, “more than mixed.” The tension grows palpable as secession looms: Lucy, who will go live in Juba, fears not being able to see her sister, who married a man from the North. Their mother worries the sister will face harassment as one of the few (perceived) “southerners” to remain. And through the tears of Lucy and her mother, it is the trauma of an entire nation that takes shape. As we witness the grief that the political reshaping of a map can bring to families soon to be divided, one cannot but wonder if “the problems of [six] little people”, which are really the problems of millions of Sudanese, in fact do amount to a hill of beans.
But the film does not stop with the day of independence. When Lucy and her husband (a northerner with Ethiopian and Eritrean origins) move to Juba, a grim reality kicks in. The cramped, impersonal container in the UN compound (which they were lucky to get, being employed by the organization) feels less like a home than their comfortable house in Khartoum. The euphoric chants from the independence ceremony become perplexed frowns in the face of the struggles that lie ahead. Martha, an MP in South Sudan, believes in a bright future for her country. Having narrowly escaped being a child soldier in the 1980s, sent off to Cuba before moving to Canada, she has returned with a medical degree and defiant enthusiasm. Up North, in an amputated Sudan, many challenges remain. We catch glimpses of the violence in Darfur through the recollections of Hawa and Kaltoum, teenaged sisters who fled to the capital’s “black belt” of slums after their village was attacked. As if replying to Lucy’s musings: “when will the Sudanese wake up?” Abubakr is fatalistic: dictatorship and conflict will keep plaguing his country. “Like someone in a cage, I’m waiting. I’m waiting.”
Today, despite two major attempts at social revolt in the summers of 2012 and September 2013, the wind of change has not yet swept through Khartoum and the Nile is ever-steady. And, just like its waters, Sudan and South Sudan remain locked in an embrace of suspicion and failed negotiations. Perhaps because, as Abubakr explains while contemplating “the Facebook” [picture] of his ex-fiancée, saved on his computer: “the heart is very stupid. It can’t forget anything.”
The world premiere of the documentary took place at the RIDM international film festival in Montreal, Canada on the 14th and 17th of November.
Margaux Benn is a French and Canadian journalist and student. After writing her MA thesis on South Sudan and working for various media and non-governmental organizations in France and overseas, she spent six months as a freelance journalist in Sudan in 2013. She is currently pursuing a degree at the Sciences Po Journalism School while working for a documentary production company in Paris. She occasionally writes for francophone and anglophone publications.