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Interview with Bentley Brown, Director of Revolution From Afar

Bentley Brown is the director of Revolution From Afar (2020), which was recently screened at the 2020 IOM Global Migration Film Festival. Other notable works include Faisal Goes West (Sudan Independent Film Festival 2014), Oustaz (Berlinale 2016), and First Feature (International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019). Working mostly in Arabic and French, Brown’s subjects often focus on migration, exile, identity and transnationalism. From 2009 to 2011, he lived in Sudan, working with the Carter Center’s international election monitoring delegation. He is currently completing a PhD in Emergent Technologies and Media Arts Practices at the University of Colorado – Boulder.

The music and spoken word performances in Revolution From Afar slap like a hammer! In this film, was art the main subject, supporting character, or the stage itself?

Art is at the core of the film and its subjects’ drive to engage with the Revolution in Sudan, despite not physically being there. The majority of the characters are poets and musicians, all of whom have grappled with the question of whether they have a duty to use art to engage with the Revolution, and if so, what’s the right way to do it? For some, using art to bring awareness to the Revolution was a duty, to the extent an artist abroad felt they had no choice. Sinkane, for example, says he was so inspired by people back in Sudan who were giving themselves to the protests and who had “nothing to lose,” that the very least he could do is use his platform as a musician to engage people abroad in conversation with the hopes that something good could come out of it. Ramey points out early in the film that while artists abroad have a platform to perform, that it was not their role to “direct” people back in Sudan who may be up against actual physical violence. I begin to wonder if these artists’ performances in the US are as much about building revolutionary momentum as they are about providing a space for healing and processing, for the artists and their communities who are watching from afar as loved ones suffer.

The art exhibit Khalid Albaih organizes in New York at the start of the film is literally a fundraiser to help fund art endeavours back in Sudan, where he views art as playing a major role in uniting people in the struggle against an authoritarian regime, previously that of Omar Al-Bashir, and at the time of the film, the Transitional Military Council reluctant to hand over its power to civilian rulers. 

To many in the Sudanese “diaspora” (I have to admit I have issues with the term diaspora since it seems to decide for its subject how and where they belong), the Revolution is embodied by–to some, romanticized by–a “sit-in” or al-i’tisaam outside of the al-qiyaada  (military headquarters) in Khartoum, where thousands of protestors were essentially camping out. To sustain the sit-in’s momentum, people performed music, blanketed the space in wall art, and of course engaged in the chants for which this Revolution has become famous. I remember the first video I saw from the sit-in, where people were gathering bricks and tires and building a fort-like structure, saying “If they won’t give us our civil state, we’ll have to make it ourselves.” That moment in itself is art.

But even this account of the sit-in as a space for art-making and performance is based on stories people told me and videos I watched from an ocean away. Was it really that way, or have we romanticized the event in our minds? By romanticizing the event, am I belittling the suffering and trauma that so many people underwent in that space? Am I being too simplistic, not giving space for important nuance and complications necessary to make sense of the situation? These are some of the questions in my mind as a filmmaker. 

Revolution From Afar has a running thread through dialogues around equity, inclusion, accountability and healing from trauma but it is too simplistic to say that it is an ‘American’ or ‘western’ influence. What do you observe is inspiring this evolution from within?

Even seeing the words “equity, inclusion, and accountability” together like this reminds me of very America-centric notions of identity and belonging. The people in this film, by their very nature of having lived and belonged to very different places, are engaging with something beyond the “American” sphere of discourse. Imagine the “Sudanese” sphere of discourse. What agency do these people have to vouch for the Revolution if they’re not in Sudan? Are they “at fault” for not being in Sudan if it was their parents who moved the family away, in many cases because of the very regime that was being protested and removed? Maryam Ghazi, a poet, expresses a sentiment that resonates with many when she says “I’m too American to be Sudanese, and too Sudanese to be American.” I struggle with this myself, born in America and moving with my family to Chad as a child. Another classic “third culture kid” comment is “I fit in everywhere and nowhere at once,” but in reality I mostly fit in nowhere. I’m often wondering if I identify as American, Chadian…or neither.

The viewing experience at times felt more as though one is sitting in intimate conversations among friends – even Ramey’s music performances ranged from crackling excitement to sorrowful testimony. How were you and your team able to facilitate that warmth?

Well I have to give all credit to the film’s participants here. As you noted, much of the film is a conversation–quite literally, with people sitting in a fanned out semi-circle and cycling through topics on notecards. Some of the individuals I was friends with from before, such as Ramey and Oddisee from the Faisal Goes West days. Eilaf and I had met when we were both living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and attending film screenings and open mics there. Khalid Albaih and I have now seen each other on three different continents, and surprisingly Africa is not one of them. But many of the other people I was getting to know through their very involvement in the events which served as the backdrop to the film’s performances: Khalid’s “Stumbling Is Not Falling” fundraiser in New York and the annual meeting of the Sudanese-American Public Affairs Association (SAPAA) in Denver. Despite many people meeting for the first time, the shared experience of having witnessed from afar the trauma of the Revolution and particularly the military’s June 3rd Massacre of protestors in the sit-in meant that the conversations were really a space to collect and process among the empathy of others who had felt something similar. We wrapped one of the Denver conversations and a participant said, “I feel like I just went through an hour and a half of group therapy.”

Throughout this film the voices, emotions, and experiences of Sudanese-Americans are centered in the narrative, yet, it is apparent that your role as a filmmaker is more than that of a witness or observer. Would you say that your life shares some commonalities with some of the subjects of your films? 

This is not only a keen observation but also my driving energy behind the making of this film. Sudan’s culture(s) and history were very much intertwined with Chad, where my family moved when I was a kid and where I lived until returning to the United States for university. I remember seeing posters of Omar al-Bashir in friends’ bedrooms, and one of the main streets in Ndjamena, Chad’s capital, is named “Avénue Niméry” after a former Sudanese president. We all listened to Sudanese music and watched Sudanese television. To me, when Bashir was removed, this was one of the most symbolic and most significant events in the last decade, and I was shocked to see it diminished in international news. So, yes, at the onset of the project I did have a desire to help shed light on what I saw as a massively important event that was severely lacking in global awareness. Yet the more time I spent talking to friends like Ramey, the more the film gave way to a contemplation of what it was like to be cut off from this event. And this is something I feel every day I am away from Chad. There is a psychology to the feelings of belonging, loss, and often guilt, for people who see themselves as “bicultural,” “dual culture,” or “third culture,” that I have witnessed among people in many countries in what seems to be a rapidly increasing fashion. To me, it is a story of our time where nation-centered discourse (such as the “diversity and inclusion” rhetoric in the United States) hasn’t begun to scratch the surface, and something I hope this film can help ignite.

In many ways, you have privileges that made it possible to disseminate these stories. How are you using your access to artistic conduits to bring marginalized creatives to the center? 

In the end all I’m doing is making the films I want to make. I actually hesitate to say I’m using a platform to bring to light marginalized voices, as this could easily be read as self-aggrandizing and a reification of the very norms that need to be challenged. 

I’m a PhD student and it’s sort of the same thing in academic spaces where, despite “decolonisation” efforts, there is definitely a privileging of the ideas of other people with doctoral degrees. What if I choose to cite someone who doesn’t have an academic degree, or whose ideas haven’t been academically published? What about citing someone who doesn’t speak English, German, or French, some of the main languages of “Western” academia? Are they any less deserving of being listened to? The idea that academics are the gatekeepers who can “bring new voices to the fold” still feels an awful lot like the colonial hierarchies and white normativity we are–on paper at least–working to undo.

That said, since I started making films as a teenager, I’m continually drawn to topics I don’t think are being talked about enough. In the case of Revolution From Afar, it’s third culture identity. For Faisal Goes West, it was a critique of the American Dream as well as a deeper dive into the idea of identity transformation for kids moving across countries. Many of my films are in Arabic, and non-mainstream dialects such as Chadian Arabic (there are supremacist notions in the Arabic-speaking world too!). This could be understood as a challenge to the English-language “cinematic hegemony.” It could also just be the fact that this was the type of thing I grew up making and with which I’m most comfortable.

Are you an ally, accomplice, co-conspirator or bridge? How and why?

I really don’t know if I identify with any of these terms, but the last one–bridge–is something close friends have called me, so I’ll go with that. When I think about everything I do, from making a movie to publishing a silly Arabic dialects video on TikTok, to just hanging out with friends over shisha, there does seem to be this common thread of bringing people together who might not have otherwise crossed paths.

As you may already know, Maine has a significant New Mainer community with representation from countries such as Sudan, South Sudan as well as Somalia, Djibouti, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Tanzania. What do you think Revolution From Afar could resonate with people from these communities specifically or for anyone experiencing feelings of being cut off, uprooted or even just “foreign” sometimes?

I don’t want to speak for them but I do imagine the specific experience of questioning one’s belonging to both an old homeland and a new homeland resonates with many who watch the film. Some of the strongest “I really felt what the characters have to say!” feedback I’ve received has been from individuals who have no connection to Sudan. This might be a little ambitious, but if a teenager or young adult watching this film receives just a little bit of validation that they’re not alone–that others have gone through similar questions of fitting in, even when their own parents don’t seem to get it, and if the parents watching the film understand their kids a little bit better (just like mine said to me when we watched the film together!)–then this film has done its job.

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