Thursday, 26 March, 2015

HMDT Communications Officer Ben Small reviews Beats of the Antonov following its UK premiere at Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Beats of the Antonov is a film driven by its sound. The narrative is weaved not by its characters but by cries, whistles and harmonised singing, by the reverberations of stamping, flip-flopped feet on the dusty plains of southern Sudan, and the hands that rhythmically thump DIY bucket drums. The musical cacophony embodies the joy and zeal of the film’s subjects. But the story is punctuated by the roar of the Sudanese Government’s Antonov planes above and the ‘beat’ of the shells they rain down, peppered by the clatter of gunshots from rebels embroiled in clashes against the regime’s forces. These are the sounds of a population struggling to ensure their identity, and their music, survives. 

Hajooj Kuka’s Beats of the Antonov is a film about a culture at threat of annihilation – that of the black African people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of southern Sudan. The genocidal Sudanese Government has been waging a war of attrition and terror against these people for years. They remain trapped between the newly independent South Sudan to their south and the inhospitable regime of Sudan’s capital Khartoum to the north, which is determined to create a culturally homogenous, Arab society.

Kuka, a Sudan-born filmmaker, immersed himself among these people for two years, documenting their resilience as they grasp on to their identity as a means of defiance. This angle is what makes Beats of the Antonov unique. While the war and persecution provides a context, culture is the star of the show, and Kuka captures the raw passion of these people in abundance. Lacking in a conventional structure, the film progresses through a series of distinct vignettes filled with performances, song-writing sessions, instrument building, conversation, traditional wrestling, partying and even an instance of impromptu local justice. It is their life and Kuka invites the viewer to live it.

It is the ‘girls’ music’ that takes centre stage as the film progresses, a genre characterised by the community’s girls who write and perform the songs in groups. The lyrics touch on the everyday lives of the people, whether that’s love, their health or the war that rages on. ‘Flies flies, dear mum/ flies bring diarrhoea, dear mum’ one song chimes. Another cries out: ‘They burdened you with the ammunition, you better be gone my friend/ the dangerous Ruma mountains await you, you better be gone my friend’ – a playful yet sincere warning to the rebels' Arab foes.

Listen to a girls' music song

The inclusivity and freedom of expression girls’ music allows it to flourish in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains regions – there is no pedestal for the performers and anyone can get involved. ‘Everyone feels they own the music,’ said Sarah Abunama-Elgadi, a Sudanese ethnomusicologist. ‘Everyone has the right to pick up a drum, play, write lyrics to any melody.’

Abunama-Elgadi is one of many experts, musicians, soldiers and ordinary people interviewed throughout the film who provide the context and insight into the identity crisis tug-of-war between the black and Arab Sudanese. Balanced in representation, they discuss both the rigid resistance to ‘Arabisation’ and where its influence is beginning to seep in. One trend is for women to use expensive creams that lighten skin tones and dilute their ‘Africaness’.

While Kuka focuses his camera on the region’s culture, he does not shy away from depicting the death and destruction threatening its existence. We see how the bombing runs of Ukraninian-made Antonov planes leave scorched craters where homes once stood. And the dramatic scenes on the frontlines of a Sudan People’s Liberation Army skirmish resemble fearless war reporting, with the camera ducking and diving between volleys of gunfire from an unseen enemy. But Kuka does not aim to glorify the violence and have his film serve as a recruitment tool for the Sudanese rebels – the wounded fighter at the end of this clip represents the grim reality of war.

Beats of the Antonov is as enchanting and uplifting as it is shocking and horrifying. There’s no better juxtaposition of these disparate responses than when, in the opening few minutes of the film, the targets of an indiscriminate bombing emerge from their makeshift shelters bursting with laughter and joy, celebrating a minor victory in their ongoing day-to-day struggle. The way Kuka transitions between the optimism of the people and the brutality of their circumstance symbolises their strength of character, demonstrating the complexity of Sudan’s sociocultural climate and what it means for someone to live beneath crosshairs hovering over their identity.

Beats of the Antonov was screened at the Barbican and Ritzy Brixton as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015. Look out for more screenings in the coming weeks and months.

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