In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka began shooting a documentary about displaced people living amid ongoing civil war in Sudan’s Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan.
What he found amazed him: music was helping to save civilians from bombing raids by their own government.
The film’s title, Beats of the Antonov, refers to two kinds of beats. The first is the beat of life: music the refugees make in their camps. The second is the “beat” of death: the sound of shrapnel-laden barrel bombs dropped on the region by Sudan’s government from old Soviet Antonov planes.
Around the camps, young players stay up all night making music and listening for the buzz of the oncoming Antonovs.
“And there will be all these different groups that are just playing until the morning, and if they hear the bomb, they just wake up everybody,” Kuka recently told VOA during a stop in New York. “And you can tell when the bomb drops. It’s like a pressure thing, and then everybody jumps into the foxholes.”
During one three-day period, he said, 60 bombs were dropped on the little town he was in.
“When they’re bombing at night, they’ll just come at any random hour," he said. "The worst thing about these bombs is, even if it dropped really far from you, the shrapnel just flies.”
What surprised him, and ultimately became the focus of his documentary, was how the music helped people to survive emotionally as well.
“Initially, I just wanted to record how people were living their lives, the devastation and all that. But [then] I noticed that people are happy there," he said. "They are playing music [and] there is a lot of culture happening. Most of these people had family members who were killed; they have lost their homes, everything is on hold for them. But you go there and you see that people are happy, and it is all because of this music and culture.”
After the 2011 formation of South Sudan, the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir sought to disarm rebels that had fought alongside the southerners. “And that was the start of this new war, in 2011,” Kuka said, adding that Sudan’s government now continues bombing civilian areas in the south where the rebels are based.
“With a lot of the rebels, these are their families, it’s where they farm and are fed," he said. "So the government says, ‘Okay, let’s just devastate the civilians, who will then run away, and then the rebels will not have their families there, which will weaken them.’ That is the strategy: 'If we can’t attack the rebels, let’s just attack the civilians.'”
Kuka says the people are always creating new songs, largely about the experience of loss and war.
“It’s beautiful, creative music, and it’s healing, because they all come together and start dancing, and start playing this music, and the music allows them to be as a community," he said. "It allows them to heal."
The songs are accompanied by instruments improvised from items like metal pans and bottle caps, with strings made from motorbike brake belts.
“Because they ran away without anything,” Kuka said. “When you’re running away, you’re not thinking, 'I’m going to take an instrument.' You’re thinking, 'I’m going to carry a baby.' So they just devised these instruments, the same old instruments, but made out of found objects in the camp.”
Roots of conflict
Kuka says Sudan’s decades-long civil war is rooted in the government’s forcing of an Arab-Islamic national identity despite Sudan's 57 ethnicities and 150 different languages. Those with a claim to some Arab ancestry and who speak good Arabic are favored, especially the lighter-skinned Sudanese, he said. Everyone else is on the bottom, even though most Sudanese, although Muslim, are not of Arab descent.
“They just took the definition that since we speak Arabic, we are Arabs, and we want that to be our race,” Kuka said. “Sudan became this extreme case where you have all these people who feel marginalized, and whatever they try, they can only become Arab to a certain extent; they come to the ceiling, and can’t pass it."
“And the solution is not a simple solution," he added. "That’s why we need a discussion to talk about it, but the solution is to create a Sudan that celebrates the 57 ethnicities, that every single one is part of being Sudanese.”
Opposition to the government is growing, Kuka said, and he thinks the war in the south would end if Bashir were arrested on the charges of crimes against humanity and genocide brought against him by the International Criminal Court.
But despite the possible risk of ending up on a government blacklist, Kuka, who is based in Khartoum, said he wants his film to reach his country.
“The most important thing for me is to get the Sudanese people to watch this film and have that deeper discussion of why did the south separate, why are we still at war, and why are all these marginalized areas still fighting," he said. "I wanted to talk about Sudanese identity and what it means to be a first- or second-class citizen in your country. For us to survive as a country, we need to solve these issues.”
Beats of the Antonov won the People’s Choice Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will air on the U.S. public television “POV” series in August.