Back to the Future: interview with Sudanese-American filmmaker Hajooj Kuka

Our own Heather Moore was a part of the Berlinale film festival this past month where she sat down with Sudanese-American filmmaker (and founder of Refugee Club), Hajooj Kuka to talk about the creative processes he employs inside war-torn, rebel-held South Sudan – where he has lived and made his films since 2012. Hajooj questions the definition of development and offers a vision for the future, based on his experiences, that is low-tech, sustainable, and oriented towards community engagement and happiness.

How did you get started in film?

Actually I was a visual artist. I was drawing, painting, then I moved into photography and editing for a while, then I worked for a TV station, then started making short movies on YouTube.

When was that?

When I started? 2004.

Thats pretty early for YouTube.

Yeah, yeah, I was actually waiting for something like YouTube to exist and envisioning ways to work with it, before it did.

What were the subjects of your films?

Very, random. I think the first thing I did was to film a music video. And then small animations, to music videos, to little pieces, fake advertisements. I just created a lot of content and experimented.

What inspires you? When you get an idea, what is it usually from?

I normally play on ideas that happen in real life

What are some of the topics?

So recently Before, it used to be random. Animation, music videos, whatever Recently, we’ve been focusing on the war. So its everything from humanitarian (a kid got killed) to music to clips of the war.

I try not to be the only one making the films, so I recently created a drama group. I get lots of folks to write scripts, do basic things, build a basic story The last three shorts we created, two were created by the drama club folks and the third was co-created.

Can you describe the process a bit?

The one that was co-created? It was my mistake, actually. It was supposed to be three filmmakers, and one was supposed to be this woman. But she decided she was going to act in it and she wrote herself a role. So I said, Ok, cool so Im shooting this. Who’s directing? Nobody’s directing. And whats the story? Then everybody started saying the story And as this happened, I just took notes, This happens, then this, then this, then this and this is the film. Ok, so theres a scene, and this happens in the scene, and then I press record, and then I just sit down. Then what happens is slightly different than what they said. I would say, ok, cool. Is that what happens? And sometimes it would change, and sometimes it would not.

We just shot the whole film like that.

So its partially improvised?

Its weird because they rehearse for a while, and I wasn’t there while they were rehearsing, because they had come up with the story. So we all sit down like this afterwards and say whats the story? Who are the characters? Everybody knew his character, and they rehearsed, and then together we rehearsed the last scene and then went shooting and were discovering what the story is while shooting.

Was there a lot of disagreement?

No they work well together. There was a lot of discussion between them, developing the characters, dialog, etc. And it all worked in the end. The film is still being edited, but in the end its gonna work. But Im not thinking of the audience or anything. Its just for us. And its really colorful, its fun

Are they all professional?

No, were in a war zone! We just started the drama group 7 months ago. Before that it didn’t exist. But now, this is my core working group for my latest fiction.

What is the fiction?

Its a comedy thats set in the war zone around us. Its about a rebel soldier who at the beginning of the film gets in an argument with his lover. She kicks him out.

For context, when nothings happening on the front line, the rebel soldiers just roam around the village. But then, when somethings happening the commanders go look for and collect all the soldiers. This act of looking for all the soldiers is called kasha – which means work. So the kasha comes after our main character gets kicked out of his lovers house. But to go back to the front, he has to get his gun, because, obviously the rebels would ask wheres your gun?. So the whole film is him trying to retrieve the gun and not be able to get this gun. And it all happens in a day.

The underlying theme of the film is about questioning revolution. There are all these young men on the front line thinking that they are the revolution and that they’re going to change everything but because the wars been going on for four years, they’re beginning to be affected by the ideology. The film questions that ideology, it questions who’s behind the revolution, and it looks at the disconnect between the people and the leaders basically the search for what we want. What do we think we want?

What is it that you think you want in the future?

My future vision might be weird to your standards. To put it in context, Im from Sudan. This last civil war started in 2011. In 2012, I went to Sudan to record and document what was happening. I had an idea in my head of what is needed for my people for development. The experience forced me to ask myself: What is development? Whats the future? It challenged my preconceived notions.

In my head it was like: you need electricity, you need running water, you need paved streets. But I went there and started living. For a couple of months and I noticed that they’re without electricity, they’re without running water, and theres no paved streets. And I realized that I needed none of that.

I realized that the ground is actually real ground, and stuff can grow in it. I like the idea that electricity is limited to when I need it, which is solar panels in certain places and doesn’t need to be in my home. And I realized that if I want to wash, Im not using the shower, Im using a bucket, and I use so little water, shockingly little. As opposed to when I use a shower and I use so much water – its amazing how much it is. So slowly, I realized that what I thought was the future – paved roads, electricity, running water – does not need to be the future.

But at the same time, were there and were suddenly using technologies and were making films. We are using cameras and were using laptops and were editing on software. Theres no cellphone reception, yet people are still walking around with tablets and doing things. Its as if suddenly the society selected what they wanted from technology — Its not for networking, but they’re using it for music or for pictures or for whatever reason, and it feels like people chose that they didn’t want everything. There are certain things that they selected that reflected their values and culture.

I began to think about the role of education in this future and how necessary it is. I feel like what we need is an education. But not an education to get us jobs, an education for an educations sake. Education, today, is geared towards getting me a job, fitting me in with what society chose to be, making me susceptible to other peoples vision for what I should be; not making me me. So an education is important. I think the main thing everybody wants is an education, and then beyond that, whatever tools to make our lives more interesting.

Our society provides the basics… food, shelter, community… and then the rest is chosen consciously. For instance, everybody farms, yet nobody is called a farmer. Calling someone there a farmer is like being here and calling somebody a grocery store shopper. It just doesn’t happen. In Sudan, they farm by rain. When the rainy season is about to come upon them, they find everybody who’s around and everybody gets a plot of land. Everybody needs to farm. You don’t have a choice, you have to farm.

Theres a plot of land for you, and if you don’t farm, because they know that they’re gonna have to feed you you have to farm. And if somebody’s not there this year, somebody else is gonna farm that plot of land.

This is life.

And everybody, in this society, owns their own house. For instance, I said, Ah, I need to rent a house and somebody else told me I don’t know if there are any houses. But theres that plot of land. We can help you make bricks and can help build your house.

Thats just how we do it.

Basically, everybody is sheltered, everybody is fed and, after that, technology just helps make our lives more interesting I think its because were going through this period where theres war going on and theres not a lot of economy going on, and so a lot of people are moving around with no money in their pockets – but they’re living. And we’ve started to look for the next thing in life.

Thats where the art came in We started making these dramas and now everybody’s excited. Were making plays and people are creating something new and there are a lot of dances and music – people are starting to be creative. I don’t know if the word is entertainment, or its a need to be creative, or its a happiness because they’re creative, but its an entertainment thats based on being part of the creation.

If you come to a party where theres a singer, its not just going to be a singer and everybody just sitting and listening. That never happens. At the very least everybody would be dancing, but beyond that everybody would be drumming, and beyond that everybody would be singing. They’ll be singing with the singer, or call-and-response they actually call dancing play. If they say Lets go play thats it, you play with other folks, and its not called dance. Its Ah, this is a play. Lets go play! And everybody’s excited about it.

Going back to the future, suddenly I decided that the future I want for my area is to be rich in culture and arts and I don’t see a paved street leading there. And I don’t really care about electricity going to every single house. I don’t care. Cause all of those things are (1) not sustainable for humanity, (2) not needed, and (3) if the aim is to increase my happiness then its useless because my happiness is not connected to that. Im happy, everything is fine, theres certain things I want and if I have them, then I would rather have good schools before any other things.

So its like you’re curating your happiness?

Im realizing what it is. Im discovering my happiness. When those things that I imagined were the future were taken away from me, I discovered that Im happy without them. So why am I trying to get them for my people. I was wrong. These are not the priorities here. If the priority is happiness, those things are not gonna help. So thats why I said its a weird vision of the future. It actually sounds a little bit … There are certain things we want and there are certain things that actually we don’t care about.

I think thats why it gets complicated when you talk about development. The notion of development has always been based on certain definitions of progress. The idea of a developed nation is always economic, technological, whatever and its not cultural. I feel like I can create, in my little area, a very developed, culturally advanced visually superb community that if you come and talk to them, you’ll find them amazing. While they cant drive a car, whatever, they don’t need those things.

I find that where Im from , in the US, and also in Europe, people are now in the process of learning or relearning things like participation, improvisation, critical thinking Its interesting to define development via this personal development.

We can change the definition of development. Ok, were not going to be developed economically, but well be developed culturally. Lets talk about who is more culturally or socially developed. When you see how comfortably a kid in my community can communicate with his elders and everyone around him or her, you will see what I mean – the way we all engage with one another.

Have you noticed a difference from where everyone is connected all the time to the internet and digitally to each other in contrast to where you live where you aren’t connected all the time and very consciously connect when you need to?

You’re much more humanly connected in these places without internet. When Im in Sudan, I interact with many people on a daily basis and I give them a lot of my time and its all the time and its a lot of people. And I feel like here I don’t need to connect to anybody physically because Im somehow connecting to people online. So actually you’re much more connected there. What you gain by this digital connection, you lose in human connection.

But it gets a little more complicated because over there people are already connected, and I think in the West, people who are already in apartments, etc., I think they got to the point where social media actually was their way to connect because they had already lost the connection.

So its not like they were already hanging out with their neighbors and everything and then decided not to. They were maybe watching tv and now this is more interactive. So maybe its actually better than watching tv in your house, and to at least be communicating with other human beings, or being more alive.

Its interesting that social media was offered as a solution to have people reestablish community.

Yeah, because they lost it. So I don’t blame the social media for people being on their phones. People were just not communicating. Maybe its better. I don’t know.

Im curious about the role of older generations in Sudan.

Hopefully when you get to see my film, you’ll notice that when people are dancing you’ll find kids and you’ll find grandmothers and everything in between. Everybody hangs out at the same time. And everybody dances at the same time. There isn’t that need to separate the generations. Nobody is doing things where they say that the kids cant be around. And nobody is doing something where they don’t want their grandmother to see them doing that. Theres more acceptance.

This is specifically in the rebel-held areas in the camps, because if you go to the main city, the urban city … then it copies the West in a very bad way. Especially in the middle class communities, its a bad copy of whats happening in the West. So what Im talking about occurs in these areas where people have found their freedom. Especially where you have a government that is enforcing an identity that is Islamic, so they separate the women, they enforce these very extreme things that are not part of our culture.

Where you live, you don’t have to deal with those things?

Where I live, people are becoming more themselves, whatever that is and rediscovering who they are.

Hopefully you’ll get to see the film, because the film is a lot about that.

Thank you! It was a pleasure and looking forward to see your film.

Feedback question from Hajooj Kuka:

If you live in a hut, and farm for yourself, but get to choose a few new technologies, what are the ones you would choose?

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