Hibiscus with Ginger

Interview with Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, director of “The Longest Kiss”.

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The Longest Kiss is a feature documentary by Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, featuring six young Sudanese looking for a place to call “home” ahead of South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Covering the years 2009-2011, it is an intimate portrait of individuals, but also of a nation and a country about to be split in two.

The world premiere is scheduled for the 14th and 18th of November at the RIDM film festival in Montreal, where it will be in official competition.

This is the official synopsis of the movie – review to follow shortly!

“The meeting of the Blue and White Nile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is referred to as ‘the longest kiss in history’.
As the Arab Spring was in full bloom, Sudan, straddling between the Middle East and Africa, was about to split in two. The film follows six young Sudanese searching for a place to call ‘home’ as their journeys take us up and down the Nile, between north and south Sudan, ahead of the south’s secession. Facing conflicting identities, youth in north Sudan grapple with a stale dictatorship while others in south Sudan hope to start over—but at what costs? For the first time a film gives a voice to Sudanese youth from different origins, Muslims and Christians. It is an intimate portrait of a complex society that bears witness to its inevitable fragmentation.”

Canadian director and NGO-worker Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque took the time to answer my questions on the movie, her time in Khartoum and Juba, and her hopes for Sudan and South Sudan.

HwG: I understand you were in Sudan with the UN. Can you tell me more on your work there?

A. S-L: I spent nearly 3 years in Sudan, both in Khartoum and Juba. I first went to Sudan in 2006 to work with the UN peacekeeping mission where I helped launch the UN’s radio station, Miraya. I left after six months to go work on my first film project in Ghana, but then returned to Sudan in 2008. I worked for a time as the Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust (now BBC Media Action) and later returned to work with the UN’s radio Miraya.

My career has been more with NGOs–I co-founded Journalists for Human Rights (www.jhr.ca) in 2002 and have worked in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

I now work with the UN in New York.

HwG: How did your work inspire you to write the documentary, and did working with the UN and the BBC WST facilitate your project ?

A. S-L: The idea of the film came from my work with the UN’s radio Miraya back in 2006. When I was offered the position, I was excited but very apprehensive to be heading to a country where sharia law is imposed. All one can see about Sudan in the media are stories of war and violence. I was so surprised to find Khartoum to be a sleepy city with some of the most tolerant and welcoming people I had ever met. I was also lucky to work for the UN’s radio station which was a very unique and exciting project—over 30 young Sudanese, from diverse backgrounds, from north and south, all working together right after the signing of the CPA towards a common goal: providing the country with neutral information. There were only a few international staff working there, and so I became very close to my Sudanese colleagues. They were the inspiration for making this film–I wanted to give them a voice and defy what the world reads about Sudan in the media.

HwG: Since you left Sudan and South Sudan, do you continue to follow the evolutions of these countries ? Have you kept in touch with your friends and colleagues, including the movie’s protagonists?

A. S-L: There is a Sudanese saying that goes, “once you drink from the Nile, you always come back.” As many who have lived in Sudan for a time, I’ve definitely drank from the Nile. It’s a fascinating, complex and beautiful country. I will always continue to follow what is happening there. I officially left my job in Sudan in July 2010 but I then returned twice to film, in December 2010 and in July 2011 for independence. I have not returned since, but I’m sure I will eventually. I would love to show the film in Juba–but I don’t think it would be possible to have a screening in Khartoum for security reasons. Even though this is not a political film per se, politics can’t be avoided in Sudan.

I of course stay in touch with many of my former Sudanese colleagues–most expats I knew back in 2010/11 left after independence. Many of us had seen Sudan from the CPA and leading to independence and I think we gave it our all. Sudan/South Sudan are countries that live under your skin, and eventually you need to distance yourself from it all.

HwG: What became of the characters of the film?

A. S-L: Nothing has changed much for them, except Abubakr who now lives in Liberia where he works for the UN peacekeeping mission there. Lucy and her husband are still in Juba, trying to make a life there, Martha is still a MP, and Chol, Hajjir & the Darfuri sisters are still in Khartoum.

HwG: Did you manage to spend enough time with Sudanese of all origins and social statuses? (Most expatriates I met in Khartoum who worked for international organisations were not able to do this.) How did you meet the people which would feature in your documentary ?

A. S-L: You are very correct–I was lucky because as I mentioned above, I had a very unique experience in Sudan. I worked with young Sudanese my age and there were only a few international staff in my office. I became close to many of them—Abubakr and Lucy were my colleagues at Radio Miraya. I consider Abubakr as my “little brother” and Lucy was quick to point out that we are “alter egos”. The other characters I met through other Sudanese friends. There is no doubt that the film would be different had I not had the chance to develop friendships with Sudanese people–I believe the film is a true intimate portrait because of the trust the people in the film gave me.

HwG: Did you encounter any major difficulties when writing and making the documentary?

A. S-L: Yes, the editing process of the film was very difficult. We had quite a few headaches trying to weave in the stories of six people through the narrative of a very complex country and political situation. I also wanted the film to be accessible to all–this is not a documentary for experts on Sudan or Africa. We had to find a way to explain the context without going into too many details, which would have confused the viewers. After two years off and on in the editing room, I think we succeeded!

HwG: …And, conversely, what were the best moments you experienced?

A. S-L: My favorite part of documentary filmmaking is falling upon unexpected moments/people to film–Hajjir, for example, is a character full of contradictions. She wears the niqaab, yet also has a nose piercing. We stumbled upon her at our production assistant’s house while we were on break–Hajjir is our production assistant’s cousin and we suddenly saw her praying in the living room… It was such a beautiful scene that we decided to film it—she then voluntarily showed us in front of the camera how she wears her make-up and puts on the niqaab. It was such a beautiful, spontaneous and intimate moment. She then became one of the characters in the film.

HwG: This film is innovative in that it follows Sudanese of different origins and religious beliefs. What is your take on the complexity of Sudanese society? Did you notice a surge of intolerance following the independence of the South, as some characters feared would happen?

A. S-L: The question of identity in Sudan is fascinating and difficult. The north somehow identifies with the Middle East and North Africa because of Islam, but at the same time, Sudanese culture is very unique and more African. At some point in the film, Abubakr says `Who are we now? Are we Africans? Are we Arabs?” which I think sums up to some extent the Sudanese existential crisis. John  Garang, the South Sudanese rebel leader who fought the central government for two decades, had a vision for a Sudanese identity that would have encompassed all of the country’s diversity. He wanted Sudanese not to identify only to their religion or their tribe, but to find a common ground in the idea of “Sudanism”. Unfortunately, when he died in 2005, these ideas also died with him. Both Sudan and South Sudan to some extent, struggle with their identity.

Despite the oppressive regime in Khartoum, I found north Sudanese to be extremely tolerant. Never did I feel uncomfortable being a foreign woman. Before the peace agreement in 2005, sharia law was much more imposed by the government and it was significantly relaxed after the peace agreement. The majority of South Sudanese who lived in Khartoum during the war left in the period of the referendum/independence–tensions were definitely exacerbated at that time…

HwG: Many problems have yet to be resolved between Sudan and South Sudan, and also within each of these countries. Are you still optimistic regarding their future?

A. S-L: We have to be optimistic. Of course the problems in both countries and between them are tremendous— conflict is ever present in many parts and looming in others. But to think that the civil war, Africa’s longest war, ended in 2005 and that only five years later South Sudan peacefully became its own country is quite amazing. Successes such as these show that political will and the right support from the international community can bring peace. But we also have to be realistic—there is a long road ahead.

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