Music is many things to many people. It can speak to the soul, change a mood, and perfectly encapsulate a moment in time. For the Sudanese farmers, herders, and rebels residing in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions, music means so much more. It serves as both a symbol of their heritage and as a tool to keep individuals awake long enough to spot incoming Russian-made Antonov bombers descending upon them at night.
Living in a seemingly perpetual state of civil war, life for these Sudanese individuals is full of daily strife. Displaced from their homes, and living in refugee camps and within mountains, the people of Blue Nile and Nuba have very little to be joyful about. It is a wonder that their spirits have not yet been broken having to navigate through daytime gunfire and nighttime bombings at the hands of the government.
They will not concede though, for they stand to lose themselves and their culture if they do. In director Hajooj Kuka’s enthralling Beats of the Antonov it quickly becomes clear that this is struggle about identity… specifically the preservation of it. Kuka shows that there are more to the divide between North and South than simply violence. The people of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain are trying to maintain their African roots in the face of a government that is pushing them to embrace a more Arab lifestyle.
Kuka exquisitely depicts the numerous ramifications, such as self-loathing, that comes with being told that one’s skin is too dark. One of the many eye opening things that he uncovers is the disparity in regards to education. Those who align themselves with the Arabic language have a much higher chances of getting a decent education and moving up in society. The inherent racism and marginalization towards non-Arab Sudanese is as damaging as those forced to live with the inner turmoil of being trained to kill their fellow Africans.
Observing the way Kuka presents his topic, it is easy to see why Beats of the Antonov won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the festival. Amongst the harsh images of war and poverty, Kuka finds inspiration and hope in his subjects. Music is regarded in the film, and by those Kuka interviews, as an intoxicating drug that takes away the pain of life for a few moments.
It is through the infectious beats from homemade instruments that we see the union of famers and militants alike. Despite their circumstances, Kuka never presents the subjects of his documentary as mere victims. The individuals he captures on screen, whether it is farmers, intellectuals or local musicians, refuse to give up hope. Their strength and courage are as inspiring as the wonderful music they make.