Little is known about the ongoing war in Nuba Mountains in Sudan, but a new documentary by Al Jazeera called Eyes of Nuba casts some light on events. The 25 minute documentary explores the world of a small band of local reporters, called Nuba Reports, trying to shed some light on the stressful life they experience on a daily basis. Their main goal is to get the message out to the international community.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Director John Dickie for more information about the film.
How did you find out about Nuba Reports?
JD: Like most people, I had heard of the tragedy in Darfur but had no idea a similar situation was unfolding in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. A photographer friend of mine, Will Shouldham, travelled there at the onset of the war in July 2011 and met the founders of Nuba Reports. He got stuck in a town called Kauda for two weeks when all NGO flights were cancelled and the UN pulled out of the region. There, he met the recently formed team of Nuba reporters and became involved with the project, giving them advice and training them in journalism and photography. When I saw him a year later he told me all about the war and the grave human rights situation and the amazing citizen journalists he had met, and said it would be a great subject for a film. A few months later, we were on our way to the Nuba Mountains.
- How did you become a filmmaker?
JD: Most of my filmmaking experience has been in Latin America. I live in Oaxaca in southern Mexico and got started in documentary filmmaking covering the 2006 social uprising there. I have since made several feature films and many shorts, mostly character-driven films in Mexico and around Latin America. I covered the drug war for several years and have made films on subjects like alternative energy, youth culture and immigration. It was obviously a shock to go to film in Africa, especially in a remote corner of Sudan!
- What were the challenges that you faced to get all of the film’s footage?
JD: This was the most challenging experience of my life. There were challenges and obstacles at every turn. Firstly, it was very difficult to reach the Nuba Mountains. It took us a while to arrange flights with the UN. We took a prop plane from Juba in South Sudan to the Yida refugee camp on the border with Sudan. Some of our equipment, including a tent and generator, had to come on a separate flight as we were over the weight limit.
It was shocking to arrive to Yida, where over 70,000 Nuba have taken refuge from the war and live in terrible conditions, lacking food, water and health services, with many security risks also. Heat was a big factor too – it was 50 degrees Celsius every day – and meant it was hard to think or sleep, let alone work. The heat and dust also affected our cameras, batteries and hard drives. Our generator blew up on the third day also. Sourcing a vehicle was difficult, and gasoline was hard to come by and cost $15 a gallon. Also, the language barrier [was an issue]. I had never made a film where I didn’t understand what people were saying, and when you want to make an observational documentary, it makes life very difficult.
Once we had permission from The Sudan People’s Liberation Army North (SPLA-N) rebel leadership to enter the Nuba Mountains, we set off along the dusty road north into Sudan with our friend and main character Ahmed, passing South Sudan army checkpoints and crossing at Jau, from which point we were now in rebel held territory. We had entered a war zone and were on our own, far from any kind of support infrastructure – no phones, no hotels, no restaurants, no clinics, little food and water. I started to get a feel for what life was like for people here.
The biggest threat was of course what Nuba people face every day – the circling of Sudanese Air Force Antonov bombers overhead, randomly dropping payloads on civilian areas: fields, schools, churches. You can hear it coming and have to dive for cover in a foxhole. I had never been in an aerial bombing situation, and it was terrifying and shocking. The booming sound of the bombs landing somewhere on the horizon is unforgettable. In all, we heard around 20 bombs land during the ten days we were there. Luckily for us, none landed closer than a mile from us.
Land mines are everywhere and are of massive concern. We were always worried whenever we left the beaten track. Also, you never know when Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) may try and advance their position, although whenever they move, the rebels annihilate them, capturing tanks, vehicles, weapons and ordinance. The only reassurance is that the rebels really have control of the region. When we joined them at the front line, to visit the burnt out village where Ahmed grew up, there were no firefights, but the possibility of an attack is always there and the tension is unbelievable.
There were challenges everywhere. Every day was a challenge and tested me to my core. It was very difficult to make a film in these circumstances, we did our best!
- Do the reporters working at Nuba Reports fear persecution?
JD: Not at the moment because the SPLA-N has almost complete control of the Nuba Mountains and provide protection to the people of the Nuba Mountains, including Ahmed and the team, from SAF incursions. So they do not fear persecution from the government as government forces cannot reach them. SAF only has control of some of the main towns, like South Kordofan state capital Kadugli, where Nuba people and the reporters cannot go. Ahmed and his family already felt the horror of persecution as they are originally from Kadugli and he used to work at the Ministry of Information. SAF started detaining and murdering any Nuba suspected of being involved with the political arm of the SPLA-N, the SPLM, so they fled, and after 14 days walking, they arrived to the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.
If the situation changes – if the current regime in Khartoum collapses, or if they defeat the SPLA-N— then there is a potential risk of persecution in the future.
In your opinion, what was the most moving part of the film?
JD: A week before we arrived to the Yida refugee camp, where Ahmed´s family live, Ahmed’s father died, from a suspected heart attack, and a post-burial ceremony was held on our second day there. Tribal elders and dozens of families from his community came to pay their respects. It was very moving to witness this and see Ahmed come to terms with the loss of his father, and also assume his position as the head of his family. It made for a powerful emotional sequence which can be seen in the second half of the film.
How do you think that this documentary will help Nuba Reports and the people of the Nuba mountains?
JD: With journalists and NGOs banned from the region, which is also so remote, very little news comes out of the Nuba Mountains, and there is little coverage of the war and the human rights atrocities being committed in international media. So, to have a half-hour documentary about the situation, seen through the lens of a very personal story – that of Ahmed and his life and work as a citizen journalist – on a major network like Al Jazeera English, which I understand is the most watched channel across Africa, means it can shed some light on the issue. The film has the same impact as the work of the Nuba Reports team – to show the world what is happening in this horrifying and forgotten war. Hopefully, information leads to action.
Are you planning international screenings for the film?
JD: Yes, after the television broadcast there will be screenings in Kenya and South Sudan and other neighbouring countries, and we hope to show it in different film festivals. It is especially important to have the film seen in Sudan also and we are working on this. People in Khartoum are largely uninformed about what happens in the provinces of their own country owing to government control of media. But it is difficult to control the internet, and the film will be on the Al Jazeera website and elsewhere, so we hope it will continue to be seen online for years to come. Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, so the more the film is seen, the better.
The documentary will air on Al Jazeera at 16:30GMT on Wednesday, 29 January. The documentary is also available online.