Beats of the Antonov
Directed by Hajooj Kuka
The story of the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, showing how they deal with civil war. Traditionally music has always been part of daily life in these areas, but now, it has a new role in a society challenge by war.
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★★★★★ review by Disgustipated on Letterboxd
In December, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands awarded $10 million in compensation to child soldiers recruited by Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. When I read news like this I am shocked to hear about these atrocities. It saddens me greatly as no amount of money will ever successfully heal the trauma that those children have experienced. It will never restore to them their lost childhoods. At the same time, to me these conflicts seem so remote, so little understood. The Congo has warlords? Is the country still divided by tribes like when the Europeans first arrived and made even more of a mess of the continent? It all seems so anachronistic from the comfort of my middle-class suburban life. And although hearing about abused children fills me with instant empathy, I feel so helpless and removed from a situation I can barely imagine or comprehend the concrete reality behind these headlines.
And then along comes a documentary like Beats of the Antonov. The filmmaker, Hajooj Kuka has embeds us within the tribes of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Southern Sudan, providing us with an insight into a similar bloody civil war that has involved child soldiers as well. It is hardly an objective documentary. At times it descends into an outright propaganda aimed at raising the awareness of the conflict for the purpose of obtaining the sympathy and support of progressive westerners. Despite which, that is not a bad thing in itself because although it undermines the credibility of the film to provide an impartial investigation of the situation in Sudan, it stills provides us with an invaluable document of the conflict. By immersing us in their culture and sharing with us their agitprop we are left in no doubt as to why the rebels of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile believe they need to fight against the ruling regime in Khartoum. This is critical if we are to understand why this conflict exists and why it is important to them, even if it does not present the other side of the story.
Music is central to this understanding. We are treated to a constant barrage of musical performance and dance as the entire community manage to thread it through every aspect of their lives. We learn about how musicians create their own handmade instruments, demonstrating both their resourcefulness and their dedication and passion for what they play. We are shown that there is no separation between the musicians and the audience. The people all sing together, weaving and dancing amongst the musicians as they play. It is explained how the lyrics of the songs are often simple and about lived experience. The people can relate to them and celebrate their everyday lives, their culture and their identity through their songs. Joining in the vocalisation of their lyrics is a testament to who they are as a people and as individuals. Just as much as it is about the music it is about the exuberant clothes that the women wear as they dance in complete absorption with the music. Where ever there is music there is colour, movement and celebration.
However, this is not just a piece of musical ethnography. This is crucial to understanding the conflict. The music is symbolic of the tribes unique identity. It is part of what makes them African and "Black". Tribal politicians, academics and military officers explain on the other hand that the ruling regime have a fractured identity. The leaders in Khartoum deny their African roots and their "Blackness", instead turning to the Middle East and Islamism for their identification and guiding light. This has caused a schizoid crisis for which the regime attempts to reconcile by doubling down on their Islamic adherence. This leads to them attempting to the crush the tribal cultures citing their anti-islamic music, dress and lascivious dance. I have no idea if this is accurate or not. It has the ring of truth to it and makes for a compelling argument. Unless that is just my post-9/11 Islamic fundamentalist alarm bells ringing without the full picture. I am sure that the rebels have down their own fair share of shitty things.
But as mentioned above, even if it is not accurate it gives a good idea of the rebels perspective is on things and that is still very important for understanding the nature of the conflict. To the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions the conflict is an existential threat. The music and the dancing are the stakes and those stakes are high. It is the music and dance that sustains them through the conflict. It provides them with the cohesive narrative and identity that drives them forward. And it gives them the resilience to struggle even in the face of the constant bombing of the Antonov planes that are ordered all the way from Khartoum to drop death from the skies above onto their defenceless makeshift refugee camps and villages below. Maybe this isn't a perfect documentary, but it provides me with a greater understanding of what lies behind those headlines and gives a face and a voice to the individuals who are impacted by the horrors of these wars that rage half way across the world. These wars sure do suck big time. I hope that it is resolved soon and that the music can keep on playing, the women can keep on dancing and everyone lives happily ever after in peace. One can dream, right?
★★★½ review by Lorenzo Benitez on Letterboxd
A curious, sympathetic account of the relationship between music, culture and identity, all foregrounded in the midst of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. A tightly-edited work (perhaps its greatest flaw is that it's a bit too quick), Beats of the Antonov deftly navigates its complex subject matter, imbuing it with a warmth and optimistic humanity often overlooked by other filmmakers documenting Africa who cheaply perpetuate the harmful, reductive stereotype of the continent as a cesspit. Instead, here we have a film that uses the role of music in the cultures of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains as a starting point from which to ask important questions concerning race and tribal identity in contemporary, war-torn Sudan. Beats not only entertains in the moment, but also provokes further thought about the relationship between culture and identity, and how this fuels sectarian conflict.
★★★★ review by Luke Martin on Letterboxd
★★★★ review by Saymon Nascimento on Letterboxd
A movie about an ongoing war always ends in a cliffhanger: what's gonna happen to all those people we've just seen? Three years after the movie was made, are those people alive? They DO feel very alive in the movie, and that is what makes the experiende of seeing it much more disturbing.
★★★½ review by Paolo Kagaoan on Letterboxd
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