Review: Beats of the Antonov (Kuka, 2014) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Years after South Sudan gained its independence, Sudan is still embroiled in civil war. Residents of the country’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains regions suffer constant aerial bombardments from the government’s Soviet-era Antonov bombers, even as it seems that the world has forgotten them.

In his astoundingly affirmative first film, Sudanese director Hajooj Kuka documents how the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains peoples use song and dance both to cope with the daily stress of war and to celebrate their survival. Playing music also helps protect their unique cultural identity, which the Khartoum regime seeks to suppress with its campaign for Arab superiority.

Departing from conventional takes on war, Kuka excludes the typical scenes of grim-faced soldiers wielding guns and speaking ardently of injustice. (I don’t mean to minimize the usual perspectives–only to point out this filmmaker’s singularity of vision.) Mingling footage of bone-clattering bomb drops with scenes of ecstatic singing, Kuka seeks a different and more exuberant sort of truth.

The music-making of the region is refreshingly non-hierarchical. Musicians assemble their own instruments, and lyricists of all ages and collaborative arrangements sing their own compositions in addition to other popular songs. Amid footage rife with crisp rhythms and contagious joy, Kuka sprinkles in interviews with academics and intellectuals, including Sudanese ethnomusicologist Sarah Mohamed, who explains the variety of genres within the tradition. Besides the time-honored elders’ music, there is also the more modern pop-infused girls’ music, which the adolescents compose themselves.

If anything, I would have liked to see more from the film’s “talking heads.” Usually that kind of “meta” narrative disengages me, but in this case I feel hungry for context–though I allow that that desire speaks more to my own ignorance than to any fault in Beats of the Antonov itself.

The film’s lens widens towards the end of the documentary as Kuka looks towards the nation’s future, and we do finally get a longer clip with a rebel, a military leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He articulates a unique perspective for a militant: “Our main mission is in the civilian realm. The military realm is just a tool, not an aim. The aim is to achieve the humanity mission for the Sudanese citizen. And we are working on spreading awareness among the citizens about their rights, the reason for the war and how can they emerge from war to a state of peace, tolerance and acceptance of others. We are aware of the danger of becoming tyrants ourselves if we reached power. If the citizens are not aware of their rights, this can turn into a catastrophe.”

The rare forethought and wisdom evident in his speech give much reason to hope that better days are indeed achievable for the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains areas (we could only wish for so much from our own leaders). Perhaps there’s another movie there?