Dalia Haj-Omar

Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka has made identity the central topic of his new documentary, Beats of Antonov, which was mostly filmed in the war-zones of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State, as well as in the refugee camps hosting citizens from these regions. The 66-minute documentary was selected for its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014, and it is the first Sudanese film to ever premiere at TiFF. 

This is Kuka’s second feature documentary covering a war zone in his native country. In 2007 he released Darfur’s Skeleton, which focused on explaining the causes of the conflict and the citizen suffering resulting from the war in Darfur. Just like Beats of Antonov, it was completely narrated by its main subjects: Darfuri citizens. Kuka has an interest in animation, photography and fiction films; and is also an activist and a member of the non-violent youth-based Sudanese resistance movement, Girifna

The Sudanese regime puts great limitations on freedom of expression and of the press and media to the extent that makes an intimate glimpse into the realities of citizens enduring state-sponsored wars a very rare opportunity. 

National identity is by far the most politically divisive topic in Sudan and has often been reserved for discussion by intellectuals, members of the civil society and the political elite. Never has there been a national dialogue on identity that is readily accessible to non-organized citizens in a language or medium they can relate to. The documentary sets out to change this situation. 

Beats of Antonov not only reflects the courage of its director, who delved into an under-reported war zone, but also demonstrates a creativity in approaching a challenging topic in a part of the world that is often viewed and analyzed with the lens and perspective of foreigners. Kuka’s filming style conjures a dreamy, magical realism with long grasping moments of silence. He shies away from talking heads, but when used they are powerful and engaging.

The genius of Beats of Antonov, however, is not that it merely gives voice to those rarely heard and seen on camera, but that it manages to do so while maintaining their dignity and showing them as resilient, creative and victorious regardless of their circumstances.

The first minutes of the film show people running to an underground shelter to avoid an antonov bomb followed by a scene of celebration, dance and music in a refugee camp. The musical instruments used were made by the refugees from recycled materials and the lyrics are often composed by those who are singing them, reflecting their reality of displacement and militarization. 

Displacement and the hardships and losses of war have made cultural preservation a conscious pursuit for citizens of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State. Music, dance and Nuba wrestling are central features of life in the refugee camps. This, perhaps, is the cinematic feat of Beats of Antonov. It makes a film that could be heavy and difficult to watch entertaining, grasping and human because it uses the universal language of art and culture as an entry point into a non-inclusive debate that is often loaded with the language of power politics; and hence disempowering to the majority of citizens.

Prominent members of Sudan’s civil society are also given space to pitch their opinion on Sudanese identity, especially on the political failures of a regime that came 25 years ago with a “civilization project” bent on erasing diversity and “Islamizing” and “Arabizing” all of Sudan. Local religious leaders and traditions are also featured in the film, thus representing the religious diversity of that region. 

Beats of Antonov manages to rebalance the conversation on Sudanese identity by fully acknowledging all of its vital components: the cultural, the political and the religious. It also leaves the audience with a feeling of hope and allows one to imagine the possibility of an abundant life in that region of Sudan, if and when peace is finally achieved. 

Even though this film is premiering to an international audience, its real value will be in its screening to audiences around Sudan and to the Sudanese diaspora. Although it is likely to create a fresh debate on identity, what will be more rewarding (and what is more needed) is its promise to build human bridges of empathy between the urban Sudanese population and diaspora communities who are tightly sealed from the suffering of the residents of the marginalized rural areas and conflict zones.

Sudan’s geographical vastness, poor infrastructure and multiple wars have meant that many parts of the country are like islands that never intersect. This isolation from the “other,” based on fear, state propaganda, dogma and ignorance has cemented the stereotypes that foster racism, discrimination as well as cultural and social ghettos. This is also the reason there is no popular anti-war movement stemming from the center to support the marginalized peripheries, regardless of persistent efforts by Sudanese youth movements since 2009. 

Beats of Antonov shatters both the dominant narrative and the enforced isolation of Sudan’s regions and people by telling a compelling story that transcends the divisiveness of identity politics and attempts to build human bridges as well as an opportunity for a much needed citizen-based dialogue. 

Dalia Haj-Omar is a global citizen and Sudanese activist. She's interested in human rights, art, culture and philosophy and she devours books in her free time. She tweets at @daloya and blogs at Thoughts, Hopes and Speculations.