Among the innumerable films lost in the Toronto Film Festival’s leviathan belly, “Beats of the Antonov” is a true standout deserving of a significant critical push. Hajooj Kuka’s short yet eloquent, even optimistic documentary about the peoples and music along the war-ravaged border between North and South Sudan is an exemplar of how filmmakers can give dignity to refugees by allowing them their names and their voices. While music is the main feature, “Beats” is really a pic about the resilience of oppressed communities, whose ability to hold onto their culture enables them to remain unified. Notwithstanding Toronto’s People’s Choice Award for best documentary, further promotion is needed to spread the word among fests, showcases, and smallscreen programmers.
North Sudan’s determined, unabashedly racist war against the ethnic groups to the south has resulted in the displacement of 1½ million people, many from the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains areas. Kuka spent extended periods on the ground in refugee camps in those regions for nearly two years, filming heart-stopping bombardments from Ukrainian-made Antonov planes (hence the title) sent over by North Sudan and, almost more remarkably, communities regrouping to celebrate life. Music’s integral place in their culture appears to strengthen ties and form a conscious barrier to the kind of despair usually recorded in similar camps.
It almost sounds too good to be true, and had it been lensed by a well-meaning outsider, the documentary would have seemed as if it were trying too hard to put an upbeat spin on things. Instead, Kuka speaks to the men and women here not as “refugees” but as individuals, identifying each talking head by name (an inexplicable rarity) and showcasing their intelligence as they freely discuss their culture, the racism of the north and the importance of music in their lives.
An example is Insaf Awad, persuasively talking about how culture protects a community and helps release the pain of displacement. Part of the power of her conversation is the way it puts paid to arguments that the loss of cultural signifiers is a minor price to pay for saving lives: Instead, Awad, and the entire documentary, posit culture as a vital component of every community, making clear that its loss creates an unhealable wound and significantly hampers a people’s hoped-for recovery.
Part of the docu’s thrust is the disparity between the north’s push for homogeneity under a false pan-Arab banner, and the south’s appreciation of diversity. Ibrahim Khatir, an officer in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), speaks of how a multiethnic society is a sign of strength (his declaration that the army is just a tool toward the creation of a just society is quite powerful), while others discuss the north’s refusal to consider themselves African.
Interviews share screen time with uplifting scenes of music making, in which whole communities participate in song and dance, even in the camps. Ethnomusicologist Sarah Mohamed Abunama-Elgadi (aka Alsarah) explains that local rhythms lend themselves to freewheeling adaptation, democratizing compositions and especially lyric writing, as seen when a group of girls sing about such common problems as flies and diarrhea. “Beats of the Antonov” unequivocally demonstrates the essential role music plays in maintaining a sense of identity, not to mention hope for the future, among a people sorely worn down by the decades-long fighting.
Clever editing reinforces the docu’s thrust, juxtaposing disturbing strafings with men playing the rebaba (a stringed instrument) and communal dancing. Even without considering the difficult conditions Kuka worked under during much of his time in the camps, his lensing, shifting from smooth, handsomely composed shots to agitated images as he ducks for cover, captures the dignity, intelligence and joy of his subjects.