Friday, May 26, 2006

A Long Walk Home: Moving Sudan Documentary


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

By now, just about everyone in America has heard of the situation in Darfur, the western region of Sudan in which the native African population are victims of genocidal attacks by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and the janjaweed militias, often accused of being in cahoots with the government and official military the way the notorious “death squads” of Central America were in the 1980’s. Far less well known is the situation in southern Sudan, in which the native Africans and the forces of the Arab government in the North have been fighting a civil war for 21 years and a steady stream of refugees has fled to almost equally inhospitable countries like Egypt and Kenya.

A team of local documentary filmmakers led by director Tiffany Frances Huang went to Cairo in 2005 to interview southern Sudanese refugees in Egypt’s capital and make a movie they hope will enlighten Americans about the other Sudanese crisis. Called A Long Walk Home, their 42-minute film was shown at the Media Arts Center in Golden Hill May 18 and proved to be a gripping tale. Most of their footage involves interviews with some of the refugees, mostly young men involved in a Sudanese dance and performance troupe called Gamara, intercut with shots of Gamara rehearsing and some spectacular drawings by Grace Smith, a member of the filmmaking team who came to the Media Arts Center to introduce the movie and field questions.

What’s most striking about A Long Walk Home is the matter-of-factness with which the Sudanese discuss their troubles — including the killings of their relatives — and the sheer grit and determination they show as they deal with surviving in a hostile city and hope either for resettlement in the U.S., Canada or Australia or an eventual return to Sudan itself. Their faces are haunting, their voices rich and deep, their command of English limited but good enough to tell their stories (though Diana Jean Britton’s subtitles definitely help), and their spirits are shaken but definitely “up.”

At first Huang’s decision to start her film with one of the Gamara company rehearsing some of the most openly joyous parts of their performance seems jarring — especially if you’ve walked into the theatre (or pressed “play” on the DVD) having braced yourself for a tale of blood, guts and horror — but eventually you see what she was going for: a complete picture of the Sudanese in all their joy and their determination to survive and prosper. The words of the song the Gamara members sing in the film (which bears an interesting melodic resemblance to “Sly Mongoose,” a folk song from Ghana taken up by some major African-American jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins) are, “Love, love, love makes people happy/Love, love, love makes people free.”

“Filming was very complicated,” Smith told the audience at the Media Arts Center. “It’s kind of shady-looking if you’re filming in public, so we shot mostly in private” — which gives the film a somewhat claustrophobic look and prevents us from seeing the Sudanese in Cairo going about their daily lives. At the same time, this sort of discretion was unquestionably the better part of valor; the team members’ profiles in the “Meet the Filmmakers” section of the movie’s Web site,, mention their fears that either their footage or their cameras would be confiscated by the Egyptian authorities. They also note that Egypt, run by a secularist dictator and frequently a target of Islamist terrorists, has a law prohibiting the filming of any government buildings — meaning that the most inadvertent turn of a camera in the wrong direction could have got them arrested and possibly even tortured.

One of the filmmakers’ biggest problems was to get the Sudanese to appear on camera. They kept their cameras carefully concealed and brought them out only when they had nailed down permission to film — a far cry from the way American documentarians usually shoot interview footage, with the cameras set up already and getting the interviewee to sign the release form merely a minor, though legally necessary, formality. Most of the Sudanese who were interviewed were Christians — the dominant religions in southern Sudan are Christianity and so-called “animism,” the area’s indigenous paganism — and were recruited through their churches “because those are the only safe havens the Sudanese have” in Cairo, Smith explained.

All but one of the Sudanese interviewed on camera were male — the opposite of the filmmaking team, who were five women and one man — mainly because “we had a language barrier,” Smith explained. The main language of Sudan is Arabic, and the team had an Arabic interpreter, but the interpreter wasn’t always available and in any case the filmmakers didn’t want to have to deal with the cumbersome delays of conversing through an interpreter. They needed people who could tell their stories directly in the filmmakers’ (and the intended audience’s) language — and that meant mostly men, because men were much more likely than women to have gone to school and learned English.

Asked why people who were being persecuted by an Arab Muslim government because they were Black African Christians would flee for refuge to an Arab Muslim country like Egypt, Smith explained that it’s because that’s where the office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for that region is located. “Most refugees flee there to establish a file with the UNHCR to be relocated elsewhere,” Smith said. “Most expect to be relocated soon, but aren’t because of logistics within the UNHCR.”

Among the more frustrating aspects of the situation is that, because the Sudanese government and the southern rebels signed a peace treaty last year — even though the conflict continues on the ground — UNHCR stopped opening any new files on refugees, thereby closing the door to resettlement in another country like the U.S., Canada or Australia. This leaves the refugees in Cairo now with only two options: to stay where they are and deal with prejudice from Egyptian Arabs and almost no available jobs, or to return to Sudan while the violence is still going on and there aren’t many employment opportunities either. Other Sudanese who’ve fled the conflict in the south have gone either to Kenya or Uganda — where they’ve been put in refugee camps and have even worse lives than the ones in Egypt — or to go to Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, where they can hide out a bit more easily than they can in the south.

Asked where the refugees in Cairo live and whether they simply “squat” — camp out in abandoned buildings or the open air — Smith said, “Some were squatting, and others were living where they could afford. The UNHCR supports some refugees but only very selectively.” She also said that the Sudanese women are generally better able to find work than the Sudanese men because they can always get jobs as domestics — the one woman interviewee in the film talks grimly about one employer who set up an elaborate schedule of how much time each task should take and docked her if she finished something late — which was also true of African-Americans through most of the 20th century.

One economic opportunity the refugees have been able to create for themselves in Cairo is a company called Tukul Crafts. It’s a shop in Cairo that buys silkscreened T-shirts and other handicrafts from Sudanese refugees and resells them, keeping just enough money to cover their overhead and returning the rest to the refugees who make the pieces. Tukul Crafts is actually a program of Refuge Egypt, an effort by the worldwide Episcopal Church to reach out to Christian refugees in Egypt and help them. (Given Sudan’s past as a British colony, it’s not surprising that most Sudanese Christians are either Anglican/Episcopalian or Roman Catholic.) For more information on Tukul Crafts, visit their Web site at

Smith said that the motive of the Sudanese government’s persecutions in the south and Darfur seemed more racial than religious — the victims in the south are Christian and animist but the ones in Darfur are Muslims, and the Arab rulers’ grievance against them isn’t about religion but because they’re Black — and that director Huang was recruited to make the film by the person who drove them while they were in Cairo. “The intent of this film is just to spread the word and get the information out,” she said. “We want more screenings.”

For more information on A Long Walk Home, or to order a DVD copy of the film, visit the filmmakers’ Web site,