Filmmaker hajooj kuka discusses the making of the film, Beats of the Antonov.
POV: For someone who hasn't seen the film and doesn't know anything about it, describe Beats Of The Antonov.
hajooj kuka: Beats Of The Antonov is about music, identity, and war. The film takes us through understanding the ongoing war in Sudan, this civil war that's been on all my life, since before independence in '55 when it started, and explains why there is a constant state of war, and it uses music to show you that. Music has the power to heal the people. So it's used by people to heal, for the community to thrive and stay, to celebrate their life. It's a celebration of life. And at the same time, music, because the film talks about how the core reason for the war is identity, music is the best thing to show a person's identity, and at the same time, to give it on to the next generations.
POV: What motivated you to make this film?
hajooj kuka: What happened to my country is my country split. So now we have two different countries. So when I look at the map and I think of myself as Sudanese, it's not a compete thing in my head anymore. Like, it's not the map that I have in my head. So there is that questioning of who I am. And that questioning of who I am became more intensified when I went to a war zone and I found that there is a plane that has the Sudanese flag on it, that was over my head, bombing me. And when I went to refugee camps and had all these people around me who are celebrating life and living life in a way that I wasn't expecting. All this boiled down to the creation of this film, which was a questioning on one the hand, but also an outcry of we need to stop doing this, the bombing needs to stop, killing needs to stop, war needs to stop. And at the same time, there is hope and fighting for rights and celebrating life, and whatever happens, even if this war is going on, we can dance and live and grow and marry and stuff. So the combination of that inspired me to create this film.
POV: Many Americans might not understand the full situation of what's happening in the Sudan – can you contextualize the civil war and the conflict that's happening there?
hajooj kuka: Yeah. Many Sudanese people don't get what's happening in the civil war. It's very complicated. And when I started working on this I was one of the people who it's very hard for me to know what's happening. It's not well covered in Sudanese media. It's not well covered in international media. What happened is that the Blue Nile and Nuba mountains used to be part of the rebel group that fought with South Sudan for their rights. And at the beginning, the fight wasn't for independence, it was for rights and the rights of all of Sudan and whatnot. And what happened when the South Sudan got their independence, those two groups from the treaty didn't get it because what the south got was the separation that the British built. It was a map that was created by the British that gave them their independence. So the people in Nuba mountains and Blue Nile belong to the north. And what the government now decided, this Arabic Islamic government that's ruling Sudan—it's a dictatorship—they've decided that now, after the south separated, there is no more issues of identity. Everybody's the same. And we're all Arab Islamic. And these two states now need to just adhere to that. Almost all of Sudan is culturally different than the box of Arabic Islamic that they want to put us in. Sudan has 57 different ethnicities. One of them is Arabic Islamic. Basically there is a myth of this national identity that they want to box everybody in and almost everybody doesn't fit in it.
POV: What drew you to this story in particular?
hajooj kuka: In 2010 I was working with a nonviolent group called GIRIFNA. We were doing a lot of elections. There was a time of hope in 2010, where there was an election and there was a chance for change. And when the war broke out, all these people had to flee. I had all these friends of mine who were now in these refugee camps or were refugees in Uganda or Kenya, so it was natural for me to like link up with them and be like, "All right, cool, I'm going to come over and try to cover what's happening there." And when I went in the beginning, I just wanted to cover the victims and what's happening. Trying to understand for myself, and trying to make the Sudanese public understand what's happening. And when I went there, that's when I discovered there's the celebration of life and the music and whatnot. And that's when this documentary came about.
POV: And do you have a particular focus or affinity for music? Do you have a background in music?
hajooj kuka: So, I'm not a musician myself, but when I went there I was surprised by the music, the dance, the celebration of life, the happiness that I didn't expect to exist in a refugee camp. I can hear music from there and there and there's all this music going on. And I started asking why. And that's what inspired me to just concentrate on that.
POV: Yeah, you have these great scenes of the musicians creating these instruments to bring together this musical experience. So tell me a little bit about the title – where does Beats Of The Antonov come from?
hajooj kuka: So the Antonovs are the Russian cargo planes that are supposed to be cargo planes, but the government uses them to drop these bomb barrels that they are made locally in Sudan. And they basically just open and they drop them, but then they have no accuracy. So when they drop these things, they just fall on whoever they fall on. And the Antonovs, when they throw these bombs, that has a beat. You hear the plane, and then when they drop, you hear a sound. It's like the pressure sound of this thing falling. And then it falls on the ground and then it hits and then there is vibrations. So there are those beats of the Antonov, which is death. And then there's beats when beats is music, beats is the beat of the drums, the beat of the music that these people are playing with their feet. And that's the other beat, which is the celebration. It's basically fighting back the beats of the bombs. So there's this war that's happening between the planes and the bombs and the people and the music. And the people and the music, because they're celebrating their music, their culture, and passing on this culture to the next generation, it's the best way to fight back. Once the war is over, they will have maintained their culture. Actually, their culture will have become even stronger and more alive.
POV: Is the music just part of the culture? Do you feel like the music grows out of this conflict?
hajooj kuka: The music always was there, it was part of the culture. But in times of peace, it wasn't as used. It was one thing that they had in their culture. But when they were going through this hardship, the hardship of life, the hardship of being in a war, the hardship of being bombed, of losing family, of losing body parts, of just going through this dreadful time, they needed something. And I think that's when they found the music. And that's when they needed to celebrate more. So a lot of them would say how now they're actually using music more than they used to use it in peacetime. And I think it's out of the need, it's the tool that they needed and they had.
POV: Women play a large role in the singing and the writing of the war songs that are portrayed in the film. Can you talk a little bit about women's roles within that society as well?
hajooj kuka: In Sudan traditionally women have a very strong role. We even have a form of music that's widespread through Sudan and even a lot in Darfur. It's called, these women who do some sort of singing, but also poems, and they're called Hakamat. And they basically would influence society through these songs. So if you were trying to do something and it was a coward act, as a leader or just a soldier who ran away, and they say a poem about you, then everybody will start singing that poem. And then that would affect your position and status in society. So through these poems they manage to change leadership, change people's minds and stuff. It was a very people-oriented way of influencing government. In the time of war that's important because the war is mainly fought by men, so it's easy to shun away the women. But these women find ways to be in the forefront of these wars and in the forefront of trying to have a voice, which is very hard. And you find the women are stronger, in saying it like it is and not being scared. Their voices are more down, closer to the grassroots. And you believe them more. It's not like a politician who's trying to complicate the matter or anything, these women just say it. And I think these women manage to simplify the topic because they really understand it and they really live it.
POV: This film is very much about identity, and there's a quote in the film that says, "This war is caused by the northerners identity crisis." Can you give us a little bit of color around the Arab versus African identity crisis and the marginalization of different people in that context?
hajooj kuka: It's not simple. It's not an Arab versus African, because when you simplify it as Arab versus African you think of two different people. When the founding fathers of the country came about, they wanted to create a national identity, because Sudan was created by drawing a map. The British drew a map and said this is Sudan and we were given independence, what do we do? So the founding fathers wanted to have a national identity. They wanted to have a country. And they wanted to base it on these western ideas where, to have a country you're supposed to have one language, you're supposed to have a common history and all that. So they tried to invent that. The problem with the identity they chose is it didn't adhere to a lot of the people. And some people, it was easier for them to adopt it and then they became like first class citizens. And then you find people who the language was hard for. This Arabic was so foreign to them compared to their languages, so when they speak it, they speak it with an accent. And that makes them not first class citizens. And then you start having the issues. So it's a fictitious Arab identity. Having an Arabic identity or claiming an Arabic identity or claiming whatever identity you want is not an issue, as long as it doesn't give you a better standing in the country, it doesn't give you better resources or access to them or it doesn't make you better in any way. And that's the core thing about the film. And I think it's, yes, Sudan is an extreme case, where because of the identity and how we see ourselves, we've been fighting and killing each other for all these years, but I think it's an extreme case that the rest of the world can learn from.
POV: What do you hope that an American audience will take away from this film – a PBS audience?
hajooj kuka: My main thing is the people. This is a conflict that's happening now. It's a conflict that is happening today. The people you're seeing, the Antonovs you're seeing, most probably dropped bombs today. So this is a very current thing that's happening that people could actually make a difference towards. You could help these people who are there. Sudan is going to be changed and the problems there are going to be solved by Sudanese people solving them. But the rest of the world can pay attention, look at what's happening, so the people who are causing these crimes know they're being watched. And by being watched, they know that some day they're not going to get away with it. In Sudan the most important thing right now is to end this war. Like, the urgent thing right now in Sudan is to find a way where we can end this war. And end it the right way, end it by solving this identity issue that we have and by creating a country that's based on citizenship, equality, giving the minorities their rights. I want the film to be used for advocacy. I want the film to be used to change people's minds. I want it to be used to change Sudanese people's minds. And I want it to be used to change people's perception of Sudan.