CU alum captures the bicultural identity of Sudanese-American creatives in ‘Revolution from Afar’ – Boulder Daily Camera
To be a great documentary filmmaker, one must possess a healthy sense of curiosity, keen observational skills, and generally a desire to raise awareness about a specific issue.
By giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into people’s lives, documentarians are perhaps among the last watchdogs of our time.
Bentley Brown, a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, captures slices of life in the United States and abroad.
Prior to attending CU, Brown was a lecturer in film and interactive media at Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Brown – who has a master’s degree in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Emory University – moved to Chad, a landlocked country at the crossroads of North and East Africa. Central Africa, with his family at the age of 11.
Much of his documentaries and fiction films are rooted in identity, the concept of juggling two cultures and a sense of belonging, or lack of belonging.
In May 2022, his documentary “Revolution From Afar” aired as part of the Season 14 finale of “AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” on PBS Global Channel.
In this entertaining and powerful film, Brown follows young Sudanese-American artists in Denver and Brooklyn as they reflect on their place in the world, their bicultural identities, and weigh in on the revolution unfolding in their distant homeland.
In 2019, protests across Sudan brought down longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years and has been accused of war crimes, crimes against the humanity and genocide.
Through intimate conversations and moving performance footage, Brown has woven a thoughtful piece that shines a light on art as on-screen activism. The documentary features young, first-generation Sudanese creating poetry, music, and even stand-up comedy in response to injustices in their homeland and growing up in the United States outside the war-torn country.
“Revolution From Afar” can be streamed for free on PBS.
Prior to this release, Brown found success with the 2016 documentary “Oustaz,” a short film that paid tribute to one of his late mentors who had a significant influence on his career path.
When Brown moved from Texas to Chad in 1999, a man everyone called Oustaz, or “teacher,” taught him to read and write in Arabic. In addition to helping him navigate a foreign language, he encouraged him to explore radio, music, painting and cinema. They pursued creative endeavors together.
Brown’s documentary short “First Feature” – released in 2019 – centers on a team of mostly female filmmakers working in secret to create their first feature film in Saudi Arabia, at a time when cinema was illegal.
Until April 2018, cinemas had been banned for nearly 40 years in Saudi Arabia.
We caught up with the award-winning filmmaker to learn more about his work, his early memories of making movies and what we can expect from him next.
Kalene McCort: How did you experience the creation of “Revolution From Afar” and what do you hope viewers take away?
Bentley Brown: When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019 after 30 years of rule, I was a little flabbergasted as to why the international media didn’t really cover the popular protests that led to his removal and the military crackdown that followed. I’m originally from the United States, but moved as a child to Chad, which neighbors Sudan to the west.
In “Revolution From Afar”, I connect with friends of mine, Sudanese-American poets and musicians, to listen to them talk about what it was like to watch such traumatic events from an ocean of distance, in feeling at the same time the duty to be a part of the Sudanese revolution. While the film is prompted by these political events, it revolves around the very question of belonging to Sudan. Can you really be both “100% Sudanese” and “100% American”? These are questions I have struggled with myself, having grown up between countries and cultures.
KM: What do you think was the most rewarding aspect of your childhood in Chad?
BB: A growing friend of mine, Djiddo Djamil, jokingly told me that I had benefited immensely from learning Arabic and French with my friends in Chad, but had only taught English in no one back. He’s not wrong. My time in Chad impacted my sense of self by broadening my perspectives on everything, driven by years of intense interpersonal interactions in a community-centered place. Like many “third culture kids”, I feel like I am able to perform well and communicate in a wide range of linguistic and cultural environments.
But like many others in this situation, I also struggle to feel like I really belong or fit in wherever I am. Whether it’s my appearance or my perceived identity, my nationality or my Arabic dialect, these aspects conjure up all sorts of assumptions on a daily basis in virtually every place I live, be it Chad, Texas or in Saudi Arabia, where I lived before moving to Boulder for my Ph.D. studies.
KM: Do you remember what sparked your interest in cinema? Did you have any defining moments when you knew this art form would be part of your career path?
BB: Abakar Chene Massar, a friend of mine from my teenage football team, was also a playwright. He came to me with the idea – if we could get a video camera – to make a film with a fictional story set in Chad revolving around the AIDS pandemic, which many people denied was real. What we thought would be a short turned into nearly an hour cut, edited on a VCR of all things. We showed this film in our city in a crowded courtyard, and finally it was shown on Chadian national television.
The warm reception to our directing efforts led to two more films together, the latest of which, “The Pilgrim of Camp Nou”, about a young man who uses drugs to imagine himself leaving Chad to play football. professional in Europe, screened at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam in 2010. However, I still did not take cinema seriously as a career, and dabbled a little in the field of international relations until my filmmaker friends in Sudan, where I was living at the time, convinced me. give full-time cinema a chance.
I returned to the United States and shot “Faisal Goes West”, a drama in which a young man leaves Sudan for Texas in search of a better life but ends up working on a chicken farm. And since then, I’ve stuck with film and the arts, recently finishing my doctorate. at CU in a department called Critical Media Practices that encourages artistic practice – like the films I make – alongside scientific research.
KM: What’s next for you? Do you have any future projects or goals that should be on our radar?
BB: I will be leaving Boulder at the end of the summer, probably for a film teaching job and certainly to continue making films. I have projects based in Chad, Saudi Arabia and Sudan that should be released in the next two years. If you like languages, I spend way too much time making Arabic dialect videos for TikTok.
To learn more, visit aboudigin.com