Beats of the Antonov

PBS Premiere: Aug. 3, 2015Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Description

Sudan has been in an almost constant state of civil war since it achieved independence in 1956, and it split into a pair of sovereign states in 2011. Today, on the border between the two, Russian-made Antonov planes indiscriminately drop bombs on settlements in the Nuba Mountains below. Yet, incredibly, the people of the Blue Nile respond to adversity with music, singing and dancing to celebrate their survival. Beats of the Antonov explores how music binds a community together, offering hope and a common identity for refugees engaged in a fierce battle to protect cultural traditions and heritage from those trying to obliterate them.

The war in Sudan today has its roots in the events of June 1989, when Col. Omar al-Bashir led a military coup, overthrowing the government and introducing Sharia law on a national level. He appointed himself president and remains so today. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which began as a guerrilla movement in the southern part of Sudan, rose up against the government's oppression of marginalized Sudanese people, and a civil war erupted that lasted for decades. On Jan. 9, 2011, the people in the south voted for separation from Sudan, and the country was divided into Sudan, an Arab republic in the North, and South Sudan. But when the borders were drawn, many people living in Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains -- who had fought for their freedom from Sudan -- found themselves on the wrong side of the line. When they refused to disarm, the Sudanese government began waging a new war on the people in the border regions.

Since October 2012, Sudanese director hajooj kuka has been filming farmers, herders and rebels in their mountain hideouts and refugee camps, always on the lookout for air raids waged by the government of Sudan. His initial idea was to focus on the atrocities taking place against his people. But instead of the downtrodden victims he expected to find -- whose images are so prevalent in the media -- he discovered a resilient community joining together to celebrate their culture. "This film took shape as I was listening to music from the refugee camps," he says. "The music was made by instruments created from found objects; a radio was used as an amplifier to create an electronic Sudanese sound that was unique. It was new and very hip and I loved it. The music moved me so much that I knew the story behind it was key."

In the film, kuka captures the everyday life of his fellow Sudanese, who, although they have lost kin, homes and farms, improvise ways to continue harvesting their crops and raising cattle. He weaves together the voices of militants, social workers, intellectuals and everyday people to tell the story of refugees reclaiming their humanity in the midst of a complex conflict. "I named the film after the Antonov, a Russian airplane bombing the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile," he says. "'Beats' refers to the sound of the bombing -- people are running and they are scared -- but 'beats' also refers to the music that heals people."

Kuka took recordings to his friend Sarah Mohamed (known as Alsarah), a Sudanese-American singer-songwriter, who went back to Sudan with him "to get a closer look at the music and its role in the story of the people's displacement," she says. "Along with finding answers about the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains refugees, we found questions to be asked of all Sudanese, both north and south," she adds. "What does it mean to be Sudanese? Why have we been in back-to-back civil wars since our independence? What is Sudanese music? Who gets to decide all these things?"

In Beats of the Antonov, a diverse assortment of people express their opinions, hopes and fears, sharing their struggle to keep the fragile thread of their identity from unraveling. Musician Jodah Bujud plays the rababa, a stringed instrument made from found objects. "When you play the rababa," he says, "people forget their hardships for a moment. They enter a state of happiness." Alsarah is fascinated by what she found when in Sudan, particularly "Girls' Music," which she encountered everywhere among young people. Mohamed attributes the widespread popularity of these songs, which tell stories of the women's everyday lives, to the fact that "everyone is allowed to sing. Anyone has the right to drum. You can use a bucket to drum. In the end everyone sings together."

Others provide insights into the complexity of the ongoing conflict. Insaf Awad, a Sudanese refugee, believes that war can actually attach people to their heritage. "People should protect their culture," she says, "and pass it on to future generations." Albaqir Elafeef, of the Sudanese Civil Society, believes that the war is caused by what he calls "the northerners' identity crisis" as they fight to rid Sudan of its African elements.

Ultimately, many of the people in the film say that the war is about the soul of Sudan. The government "utilizes a 'divide and rule' policy," says Ibrahim Khatir, an SPLA officer. "It categorizes Sudanese citizens along racial and ethnic lines, breaking them into Arabs and Blacks." Arab identity is strongly promoted by the ruling National Congress Party, and African local languages and traditions are being lost in the process. "If we don't answer the question of Sudanese identity the war will continue," Seif Alislam says. Meanwhile, the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains continue singing and dancing, the beats in their music expressing their heritage both as Africans and as Sudanese.

"Watch this film with an open heart," says kuka. "Despite years of adversity, the Sudanese people have retained -- and even developed further -- a signature strength and resilience and even joy. That is who we are, and that's the main message of my film."

Beats of the Antonov is a production of Refugee Club / Big World Cinema.