Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Documentary Hypothesis": A Spoiler-Free (TM) Review of "The New Sudan" (2010, dir. by Coury Deeb)

The cliche is that truth is stranger than fiction.  Perhaps that explains the proliferation of documentary movies over recent years.  Who would write a script in which a French acrobat tight-rope walks between the World Trade towers?  Who would think to chronicle the story of one man's dances with grizzlies in Alaska?  Who would think to take a small camera into the woods of New England, seeking a legendary witch?  [Wait for it.] Crafty guerrilla films not withstanding, I can't help but postulate that a few things need to be said about the genre of the documentary.

One, it is indeed a genre of film, which is itself, a hybrid artistic medium.  Documentaries are artistic conveyances of an issue - they are not true "news" reporting.  Some strive for objectivity more than others, yes, but in the end, you are seeing this situation through the eyes of the auteur - namely the director.  Having made the movie, the director can precede to screen it at art house theaters or film festivals, thus "raising awareness" for the topic.  In other words, you now know that it exists.  Contra this conceit, Coury Deeb and his small band of filmmakers, have not created a movie to wow you with its artistry or give you a new conversation point at the coffee house, (although it is gorgeous in its artistry, especially William Wallace II's direction of photography, and yes, it can and should spawn many conversations).  They have made a movie that literally demands that you respond.  Even more dangerous - Deeb does not give you his artistic interpretation of the situation in Southern.  In stead, he gives you his passion and beckons you to enter the story in a very real and tangible way.

The New Sudan opens as children's drawings flash across the screen, accentuated by a touch of animation.  They're drawings of violent war, though.  Bombs drop from planes and onto houses.  Soldiers shoot women and children.  These are real drawings, drawn by real Sudanese children, responding to a request to sketch their memories of the war.  From there, stock footage takes us to the real deal, flashing visuals from the bloody 20 plus year civil war between the ruling Islamic government in the north and the mostly Christian residents of the south.  Starting there, we begin to hear from Southern Sudanese leaders themselves, including video footage of the late Dr. John Garang and his surviving widow.  Garang led the Sudan People's Liberation Army during the war, and after striking peace with the north, became 1st Vice President of Sudan, responsible for the south.  Having related the story thus far, Deeb now takes us to meet "normal" citizens, profiling the huge needs regarding clean water, education, health, and the church.

Without a doubt, the movie is unsettling and haunting, which, is a very good thing.  I was surprised to see how little Deeb employed celeb narrator William "Ethan from Lost" Mapother, whose lines are sparse and unobtrusive.  But, the more I reflected on this, the more I realized that by shunning heavy-handed narration, the subjects of the film are able to do ALOT more talking.  A rhythm emerges, as each Sudanese shares about the overwhelming need for education, clean water, etc.  Nadus Films is not telling you what they think about the situation, they are conveying the situation to you.  "One day, we will be a third-world country," shares one Sudanese.  Until then, Sudan sits at least one development rung below the lowest of the low.  Without a doubt, the reality of a maternity ward at one of the country's few hospitals is the most powerful scene of the film.  Accompanied by Alex O'Nan's (of Interstates) dark ambient score, the sequence is harrowing.

As this is a small, independent film, you, my dear reader, have the chance to get in on this action.  There will be two showings next Wednesday at Baxter Avenue Theaters here in Louisville, but, Nadus is hoping to take the show on the road, so if anyone has contacts at a church/college/whatever, hit up Nadus's website:  Perhaps this is a good time to disclaim that Coury Deeb is a friend of mine, so perhaps you might see by positive review as a good back scratching.  Trust me when I say that I don't recommend movies that don't move me in some way.  The New Sudan is a bold conveyance of horror and hope.  See this movie.

Rating: 91 out of 100.

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