First-time director Akuol de Mabior’s film “No Simple Way Home” is the first South Sudanese film to screen at the Berlinale. It is a “Generation Africa” film – a project that shines a light on migration.
Interview by Wilfred Okiche
Wilfred Okiche: You have constantly moved between spaces, first as Sudanese then as South Sudanese. You also live in Kenya and have traveled around the world. What does this idea of ‘home’ mean to you?
Akuol de Mabior: That is a really difficult question that I am still in the process of thinking about, and I suspect I will be thinking about it forever. Reflexively, I used to say that home is wherever my mother is. And that just sounded nice, and it sat quite nicely, and I believed it to be true. But is it really true or is it an easy resolution so I would not have to think about it? There is a line that comes in at the end of the film: “I wish that home was a place that I could rest.” I do not feel like South Sudan is a place that we can rest. So, it is still something that I am thinking about.
Film scene from No Simple Way Home by Akuol de Mabior showing her mother, protagonist Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior
For your mother and her generation who have been Sudanese longer than they have been South Sudanese, the concept of home has also shifted in some way. Then she was in exile in Kenya for a while. What is home for her?
She is patriotic. And I think it is much clearer for her what and where home is. She was born and raised in Sudan at the time, in the south. She went to school in Juba, and she's outspoken about her experiences. She has a rootedness in Sudan that we don't have as her children, or even our generation. But even she moved around and was unsettled within the country, because things have not been stable in Sudan since independence in 1956. She has also experienced the turbulence of war but becoming part of the liberation struggle creates a patriotism and a sense of duty. A duty to come home and make home work and I sense from her that this is how she perceives herself and her South Sudanese identity. She gave so much to the liberation struggle, lost her husband who also gave so much to this and who founded and spearheaded this movement.
The Generation Africa project is concerned with migration especially as it affects or is perceived by young Africans. How does "No Simple Way Home" fall within this scope?
The Generation Africa mission is to present new narratives on migration, and I think we fit in perfectly within this context. In the African situation, migration is usually about people fleeing, or people needing to escape situations. That is what we are accustomed to, and it is a very valid context. It happens; we know that story. I think that this story is different in that we are asking questions about what it means to come home. South Sudan has a massive diaspora; we are scattered all over. Many people from my generation as well as older generations grew up away from South Sudan, and Sudan respectively because of the war. So, we understand what it means to be unsettled. And even within the country, we understand what it means to be unsettled. "No Simple Way Home" is not what we are accustomed to when it comes to narratives around migration, but I think it fits right in.
What are the major challenges of working in South Sudan and how did being part of an African coproduction help facilitate solutions?
I feel like so many filmmakers need to come to South Sudan because it is so beautiful. The quality of light, the Nile and the scenery make it such a great place to shoot. However, it is challenging in that we could not hire equipment and had to bring in everything that we needed. There is a skills gap as well. I did have a production manager from South Sudan but most of my crew was Kenyan. People do not trust people who are filming, and I understand this because the stories about South Sudan that are out there aren’t diverse, so there is a hostility to the camera. Prior to filming, we would spend long and repeated conversations explaining to people that we meant no harm. The fact that this is a Generation Africa project meant that we had access to a great network of filmmakers. Listening to stories of migration in different contexts and countries was a great resource for me.
What impact do you think that a film like yours can have on social issues in South Sudan, particularly in terms of migration or social change?
People are yearning for stories made from our own perspectives. It is still challenging to be true to your voice because of outside expectations of what an African film is or should be. And these ideas usually come in packages that make sense on paper. Filmmaking as an industry has defined boxes that usually make sense, but sometimes the whole continent is put into just the single box of African film. It does a lot of disservice, because do you know how many kinds of Africans there are? And we interact with each other, we move through countries within the continent and outside. How do we tell our stories? Sometimes it feels like the complexity of our humanity doesn’t fit in neat boxes that people would rather place us in.
No Simple Way Home (Kenya / South Sudan / South Africa) is the very first film from South Sudan to screen at the Berlinale. First-time director Akuol de Mabior’s main subject is her mother Rebecca Nyandeng. As South Sudan hangs in the balance of a tenuous peace agreement, the "mother of the nation" Rebecca prepares to become the first female vice president of the country. Her mission is to safeguard the vision of her late husband John Garang, a revolutionary leader, national hero and former first vice president of Sudan. Rebecca’s greatest fear is that her husband, along with millions of South Sudanese people, died in vain. Her deepest yearning is for her children and the children of her compatriots to lead meaningful lives at home in South Sudan. But what does it mean to call this country home? No Simple Way Home is produced by award-winning filmmaker Sam Soko (Softie) for LBx Africa (Kenya) and Don Edkins and Tiny Mungwe for STEPS (South Africa).
Tickets for this and subsequent screenings during the festival can be purchased three days before each screening on the Berlinale website. The film is nominated for the Panorama Audience Award for the most popular documentary and feature film.
"No Simple Way Home" is a Generation Africa film, a project that provides development funds and training for films focusing on migration in Africa. Together with DW Akademie, STEPS launched this project with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
Generation Africa is a collection of 25 short, medium and feature-length documentary films from 16 countries in Africa, which aim to shine a light on the future of youth in Africa through the topic of migration. Produced by STEPS in South Africa in collaboration with production companies in each country, this project aims to give voice to African storytellers in an initiative that has built a strong documentary community across Anglophone and Francophone Africa. This ground-breaking collection introduces exciting young documentary voices to a world stage in order to shift the narrative on migration. All Generation Africa films will be screened by the French-German public broadcaster Arte in early summer 2022.