This is the must-see film at the Durban International Film Festival this year


Film: Beats of the Antonov 
Directed by: hajooj kuka
Rating 9/10

As the Antonovs rumble overhead and the bombs begin to plunge to the ground, the refugee community in the Blue Nile village just outside the border of North Sudan scrambles into makeshift shelters. Once Omar al-Bashir’s planes pass, they crawl out again, laughing infectiously, and the music begins. It’s the first of many double-takes you will do during the punchy 68 minutes of Sudanese film maker hajooj kuka’s debut feature documentary Beats of the Antonov. Laughter and celebration in a time of war?

Especially during the full moon, they and the refugee communities of the Nuba Mountains, will often dance and sing all night. It helps to stay awake when you’re under threat of being bombed in the dark.

Played on a string instrument called the rababa, often crafted from recycled materials, the music is ancient. Many of the refugees have only just rediscovered it, and it restores their splintered African identity as Bashir’s Arab project continues its waning march in a country split in two and then two again.

It’s this music that first drew kuka to the project that would see him traveling to festivals around the world and lifting awards. As he and an ethnomusicologist friend Sarah Mohamed Abunama-Elgadi settled in to communal life in the refugee camps, the political impetus behind the music began to emerge. His truly extraordinary film dances a line between cultural expression and an exploration of identity in a pure, textured and impossibly complex Fanonian sense.

Far from the big city of Khartoum, the refugees – torn between lighter skinned Arab ideals, Christianity and its accompanying missionary position, and their ethnic roots (there are 57 different languages spoken in North and South Sudan) – learn through the war that owning their identity is their ultimate victory against Bashir, the man who calls them “black sacks” and who slipped out of South Africa recently, avoiding arrest for war crimes.

It is women who take up most of the camera time. “I believed them most,” says kuka of the documentary’s characters. Another flowering of identity in a time of war is this matriarchal dominance in the camps. That and a communal farming system and a development structure untainted by China and NGOs.

kuka went in to a war zone and found a (never idealised but poignantly celebrated) traditional African structure emerging as a political force shaped by resistance.

I don’t want to say more, because you need to see the film, produced by kuka and South African Steven Markovitz, for yourself. Just this: Beats of the Antonov is the purest kind of cinema. One man and a camera that unpeels a story of the unmakings and makings of identity through cultural production, one where the musician and the audience is unseparated, where music is able to express both lament and healing.

It’s the must-see film at the Durban International Film Festival this year.
* Beats of the Antonov will be screened on the indie circuit later this year.
* You can still see it in Durban on July 21 at 8pm at the Suncoast Cinecentre and on July 23 at 10pm at the Musgrave Cinema.