Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka recently won the People’s Choice Award at the
Toronto International Film Festival for his documentary Beats of the Antonov. He is
an accomplished visual artist and activist with a love for great cinema and a
storytelling sensibility that combines an international cinema aesthetic with pan-
Did you always want to become a filmmaker?
I have always been a visual artist. Moving from drawings, paintings, photography,
animation and film. In filmmaking I found a medium to combine my passions and
discovered new ones. The deeper I get into film the more my love for it grows.
How has your upbringing shaped you as a director?
I grew up in a diverse urban setting that always celebrated my Sudanese Nubian
African heritage, while living amidst an Arabic Islamic culture. I also grew up under
a dictatorship and in an activist household fighting for freedom. All this gave me an
understanding that with the power of film comes a social responsibility. That is why
most of my work focuses on the Sudanese people’s search for their identity, justice
What has been the highlight of your career as a director to date?
My brightest moment as a director is winning the People’s Choice Awards at TIFF
2014 for my film Beats of the Antonov. I can’t imagine a better award to win!
Another equal highlight was the first time I screened the film in a cinema and felt
the energy of the audience as they joined the film’s characters on a journey in
Sudan’s war torn areas. It was priceless to feel the genuine connection of a diverse
audience in Toronto to the people in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile and how they
understand both their misery due to their own government bombing them and their
happiness that comes from the deep rooted connection to their traditional music and
culture. The ability to make people in Toronto connect with Sudanese people was
my best success to date and a high in my filmmaking experiences.
Who are your mentors, if any?
I learned the art of filmmaking and continue to do so mainly through working with
peers. But my first mentor, and a close friend, who introduced me to the language
of film, is Kwesi (Jean Renaud), a Haitian cinematographer and filmmaker.
What kind of stories/narratives do you particularly enjoy telling?
I love bizarre and unexpected real life stories especially when they examine
identity; who I am and who we are? Recently, my obsession has become love
stories in unfavourable situations.
What would be a dream shoot location for you and why?
My dream shoot location is Lagos, Nigeria. I love the high energy urban setting that
combines culture and the urban hustle and constant search for the new. Add to that,
Lagos has beautiful people and endless stories that are bound to bring entertaining
energy to the big screen.
What does the future hold for Hajooj Kuka? Hopes and dreams?
My hopes and aspirations continue to evolve and grow. My current dream is to
complete my next fiction feature film. It is a romantic comedy set in the backdrop
of the Sudanese civil war in Nuba Mountains. With a core emphasis on the concept
of black is beautiful.
What are your top three favourite films and why?
The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo. This film captures the energy while
keeping true to the reality of a single time in history like no other film; in this case
it is the Algerian colonial resistance movement.
À bout de souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard. This film inspires me to create
and sets me free as a filmmaker.
Lumumba by Raoul Peck. The best reminder of the ability and power of cinema to
teach us about our African heroes.
Who are your top three favourite directors? Why?
Emir Kusturica (Serbia), for finding humour where others see nothing but tragedy.
Creating comical characters that are full of life and energy but are also deep and
emotional. Finally his mastery of using music in film.
Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania) excites me with visual African storytelling that
is close to my heart. Seeing Sissako’s films just makes me want to pick up my
camera and create!
Bong Joon-ho (South Korea) for entertaining storytelling that is both unpredictable
and engaging. With complex backdrops that, even if unfamiliar to the audience, are
intriguing and add a depth that excites the intelligence while we remain truly
connected to the main characters.
My list will not be complete without adding Ramin Bahrani (Iran/ USA) for proving
beyond a doubt that an independent micro budget can create a great film. A strong
story is the essence of film.
What has been your greatest challenge as a director to date?
There are many challenges; East Africa lacks a cinema industry, making filmmaking
harder as there are little to no success stories to lean on. Add to that, our African
characters don’t fall inside the mainstream boxes and stereotypes that would make
it easier for a wide audience to connect with them. The challenge is to make the
character’s humanity shine through while maintaining their true essence. But my
greatest challenge as a director has been selling my African multi-character
storytelling aesthetic which breaks from the single character driven style of
storytelling Hollywood blockbusters have made the norm.