'Beats of the Antonov': Film Review

A valuable anthropological doc that could have used more context. 

Culture thrives even as bombs rain from the sky.

In his debut, Beats of the Antonov, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka goes to his sometime home in the Nuba Mountains, where war has been nearly constant for half a century, and makes sense of one subject's belief that "war is good and bad: It makes people more attached to their culture." Having taken home the People's Choice doc award at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, the pic is now months into a well-received fest run; it will be valuable to scholars of both this crisis and African music, but may be too specialized to draw much TV attention in the U.S.

The film opens with shots of a big silver plane that looks tiny in a bright blue sky — a poetic image whose spell is broken when explosions reveal it is dropping bombs on those who watch it. From the ditches where they hide, though, we hear not cries but laughter. Nobody's hurt.

Since Kuka never identifies it, a viewer should walk in knowing that this plane is the Antonov of the movie's title, a Ukrainian aircraft associated with bombing raids in the conflict between the Sudanese government and the People's Liberation Movement. They should also know a bit about that conflict, since Kuka does little hand-holding, focusing mostly on Islamist President Omar al-Bashir's attempt to quash the Nuba Mountains' and Blue Nile's local cultures and the way this campaign has affected people's self-image. "The idea that 'black is beautiful' has not really reached us," we're told, as we meet women who use hazardous lightening creams for their skin.

With ethnomusicologist Sarah Mohamed, Kuka is most interested in the rituals of music and dance that this push toward Arab culture would seem to threaten; the film's oddly optimistic vibe results from their conviction that these folkways are so interwoven into community life they will be very hard to kill. We see and hear a good deal on this front, including performances on an inventively amplified string instrument called the rababa. But viewers wanting a straight music or dance doc should look elsewhere: As Beats proves with the attention it pays to songs' lyrics and to the way "girls' music" is made, culture and politics are impossible to separate in this region.

Production companies: Refugee Club, Big World Cinema

Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography-Editor: Hajooj Kuka

Producers: Steven Markovitz

No rating, 68 minutes