“Beats of the Antonov” succeeds where other documentaries and narrative films about war and suffering on the African continent often fail, in that it finds a new, genuinely interesting perspective from which to explore a complex situation. The directorial debut of Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, the film is a portrait of refugees of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains affected by the the civil war in Sudan, using their strong cultural ties to music and dance as a way of telling their stories.
The title refers to the Russian-manufactured Antonov planes used by the Sudanese government, which rain down bombs targeted towards rebels but in the process destroy the homes and lives of Sudanese villagers without discrimination. The film opens with one such horrific bombing, followed minutes later by a kind of spiritual musical moment, as the villagers gather in the wake of carnage in celebration of life.
This is a story about the Sudanese, told by the Sudanese – Kuka uses fly-on-the-wall footage of the revelry of the refugees, interspersed with simply shot interviews with not just experts and intellectuals like the Sudanese-born music scholar Sarah Abunama-Elgadi, but both civilians and soldiers alike.
It’s through these interviews that the viewer gains further insight into the identity crisis that Sudan is facing, the push-pull between Arab and African and the implications of embracing one or the other. Never editorializing, Kuka presents all sides – from those Sudanese eager to embrace both an African and Arab identity, to those willing to erase their Africanness and therefore their blackness – one young woman intimately reveals how she lightens her skin in order to look “more Arab.”
It isn’t the beats of the bombs falling from the sky, but the beats of the traditional Sudanese music lovingly showcased here that above all else, makes this documentary so uniquely captivating. It isn’t very surprisingly that the film won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF, beating out Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction” and the much buzzed about “Do I Sound Gay?”
Kuka has crafted a deeply personal but also deeply enlightening record of a situation that so many of think we know but don’t truly understand. It may be a cliché concept, but the music here really is a kind of universal language, brilliantly and beautifully conveying a kind of national identity that is as diverse as it is distinct.
Announced this afternoon, “Beats of the Antonov” has its national broadcast premiere set for Monday, Aug. 3, 2015 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS’s POV (Point of View). The film will also stream online Aug. 4 to Sept. 3.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.