SIFF Face The Music 2015 Preview: Beats of the Antonov

Janice Headley

Beats of the Antonov(Directed by Hajooj Kuka, Sudan, 2014)

Festival screenings:Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 6:30 PM - SIFF Cinema UptownFriday, May 22, 2015 at 4:00 PM - AMC Pacific Place 11[ director in attendance at both screenings ]

Despite being a film about music, Beats of the Antonov opens with eerie silence, followed by the foreboding sound of an airplane engine. Over the past couple of years, Sudan has been divided by an ugly civil war. Refugees from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains areas have gathered in makeshift camps. You hear the bombs drop, but then, out of nowhere, you hear laughter. They have to laugh, to cope with the stress of it all. And they have to dance and play music, to celebrate their survival, and keep their spirits up.

It's become a corny film cliché, but Beats of the Antonov truly does capture the "triumph of the human spirit." These people have lost family members, their homes, their food, yet they still scrape up what they can to create music. A cluster of bottlecaps becomes a tambourine. A plastic bucket serves as a drum. I don't even know what that guy was using to make that stringed instrument called a "rebaba." A plate? Plastic pipes? Nylon fabric for the strings? They don't even need these instruments: the residents clap their hands and stomp their feet to create their own rhythms, singing out in unison. Someone explains, "there's no divide between musician and audience; everyone is a part of the performance." In a bigger way, this gets to the heart of the strife between the North and South. Albaqir Elafeef of the Sudanese Civil Society theorizes, "Identity transpires in artistic creations. And because we have insecure, divided, and fake identities, we are not living in peace with ourselves, and it follows that we can't live in peace with others." Apparently, the Northern regime is forcing a Arab nationalist identity on this African culture, resulting in the country's divide. An especially heartbreaking scene shows a refugee describing how their current president, Omar al-Bashir, referred to them as "black sacks." "Are we sacks?" she asks the camera angrily. "We used to be one people."

Their music is an expression of their cultural pride. Lyrics range from chants about the youth being sent away to fight (as they sing "those boots are too big for you"), and there's even a sub-culture of "Girls Music," where the women in the camps sing about things like flies, diarrhea, and even love. Their songwriting is done as a community: lyrics are written free-style, together, and are sung out, together.

Sudanese director Hajooj Kuka is not only a filmmaker, but also a war reporter, and his love for his heritage truly rings out. Beats of the Antonov is a beautiful portrait of a country in divide, and how music can help heal and give us hope for the future.

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