Beats of the Antonov (Sudan, 2014)

Directed by Hajooj Kuka, the film opens with the literal beats of the Antonov, dropping bombs as it flies over a village. Eerily, the sounds of explosions and crackling fire are overlaid with the laughter of children. The voice of Jojah Bujud, a Sudanese musician, tells us: “The laughter is always there. People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt. Laughter is like a new birth.” With these words, the beats of the Antonov are replaced by beats of a different kind: the music of drums, singing, and the Rababa, a North African stringed instrument. “When you play the Rababa,” Bujud says, “people forget their hardships for a moment. They enter a state of happiness.” The music plays another function as well; at night, the children of the village sing and play the Rababa until the plane passes, so no one is asleep when the bombs come.

We Want What Is Ours

The Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains region of South Kurdufan state wanted to join South Sudan but were denied the right to vote to secede, and thus remained part of the north. Although administratively part of the Republic of Sudan, people of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains culturally identify with South Sudan and differentiate themselves from “Northerners.” Northern Sudan remains Arab-centric. Thus, in the words of Muna Abdallah, a young refugee: “For you to be part of these people you have to be fluent in Arabic. Your failure in the Arabic language means your failure in the education system as a whole. That’s why you find that most of the educational gaps are among those for whom Arabic is not their mother tongue.”

“War is good and bad,” explains Insaf Awad, a Sudanese refugee. “It makes people attached to their culture.” The cultures of the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains are not taken seriously by Sudanese national media. “Why?” Seif Alislam, another refugee, asks rhetorically. “Because my people’s music is categorized as pagan where the two sexes mix, and the girls are immodest, girls and boys dance together, the boys are too feminine.” According to Sudanese human rights activist Albaqir Elafeef, “the war is caused by the Northerners’ identity crisis. The war is against all the African elements in Sudan”; in other words, it is “a war actually waged in the subconscious of Northerners against its own black element.” At the a political training institute run by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Nuba Mountains, SPLA officers prepare trainees to help fight against the arbitrary racial divisions imposed by the state. Yunis Elahaimar of the Institute explains that the government imagines the Nuba Mountains region as an African enemy threatening to take over Sudan.

An Alternative Sudan

Sarah Mohamed, a Sudanese ethnomusicologist, explains: “Despite this racist war being waged and these people fighting to keep their culture alive, knowing that others fight them because their color and roots are different, I came here and found that the girls are no different. They use these creams on their faces and tell you because redness is more beautiful.” She continues: “The idea that ‘Black is beautiful’ has not reached us, although we are all black. Why did it not reach us? It is baffling, right? The whole country are Africans, and everyone wants to paint themselves white.” According to Elafeef, “inside every Northerner there’s a tiny Arab,” and it is this interior voice that drives channels Sudanese self-loathing toward the racial “other” of places like the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains. Sudanese refugee Rabha Awad condemns state-sponsored aggression against the border states: “We want him [Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan] to send his own kids if he wants war. But he doesn’t. He only pushes the Black people to die.”

Beats of the Antonov is a beautiful film that highlights, as Sarah Mohamed puts it, “an alternative Sudan.” Scenes of warfare—sometimes graphic—are interwoven into the film, but refreshingly, Kuka focuses on resilience of the people of southern Sudan and their cultural tenacity in the face of civil war. This is not your typical war documentary.

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Conversations on Serious Topics (Lithuania, 2012)

This brief but powerful documentary consists of snippets of filmmaker Giedrė Beinoriūtė’s interviews with twelve Lithuanian children. The film begins with a deaf girl, Ruta, telling a story in sign language about a flower turning to face the sun. (Although the children’s first names are listed during the credits, few of the children are referred to by name during the interviews.) One of the other exceptions is fidgety Jonas, who tells Beinoriūtė: “I don’t have to be in TV or movies or something else. I just have to be seen by somebody, even it it’s just an old man in the street.”

Like Jonas, most of the children provided remarkably candid and complex responses during their interview. Beinoriūtė stands off screen as she conducts the interviews; her simultaneous presence and absence places the entire focus on the children, while also reminding the viewer of the discursive, interview-based style of the documentary, with its minimalist presentation.

Some Background

The social context within which the documentary was produced bears discussion. Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors, is a country marked by relatively high suicide and divorce rates, as well as negative population growth. Having grown up against this troubled backdrop, the children provide their thoughts on, as the title suggests, topics like love, death, religion, and human nature.

In addition, many of the children in the documentary had been, or were currently, in foster care. According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of the estimated 408,425 U.S. children in foster care in 2010, about 15% of them were living in either institutions or group homes. By contrast, based on data from Statistics Lithuania, there were approximately 10,716 Lithuanian children living in foster care in 2012, of whom—if my calculations are correct—43% lived in institutional settings. Beinoriūtė talks to a few boys who live in such an institution. One of them describes running away from home because he didn’t like his foster father. Beinoriūtė asks him: “What’s so exciting about running?” He replies: “If you escape, then you’re free.” These boys describe their bleak childhoods in heartrending detail; one older boy describes being beaten with firewood by his parents, and when asked if they’re still alive, he responds: “How should I know?” Beinoriūtė then asks him if he loves anybody. He replies, simply, “Who’s there to love?”

Finding Happiness

A few of the children present more positive outlooks. Ruta, for instance, generally seems like a genuinely happy and enthusiastic child, telling Beinoriūtė that “My world is beautiful,” though she does admit that “Sometimes people do bad things.” An older blind girl, fond of writing poetry, says “of course” she believes in God: “I believe he exists and he exists. At least for me he exists.” One of the other children disagrees with the idea that forming attachments with people inevitably ends in disappointment: “If you don’t get attached to anybody, you spend your whole life as a loner.”

While they watch the film, viewers who grew up in a U.S. setting might find themselves strangely reminded of the American TV show Kids Say the Darnedest Things. (At least, that was the connection I drew.) Obviously, Conversations is much more, well, serious. But like that rather less poignant TV show, this documentary’s appeal comes from the precocious responses of its stars, ordinary children who are somehow also extraordinary.

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