A Nigerian film and the Berlinale's first South Sudanese entry revisit the issue of migration from an African perspective. DW talked to filmmakers Ike Nnaebue and Akuol de Mabior.
"I fell in love with storytelling from a very young age. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I've just loved the idea of stories being told," says Ike Nnaebue.
Growing up in a village in Nigeria, Nnaebue loved to hear his grandmother tell stories, and quickly discovered that storytelling could influence people. That eventually led him to become a filmmaker.
But before embarking on that career path, he was influenced by another powerful narrative that has driven many Africans to leave their home country: crossing over the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the hope of getting rich and providing money for the family.
Nnaebue, however, changed his mind along the way. Following first experiences as a film extra, he decided to focus on his passion for storytelling, in his own country.
Retracing the steps of a personal journey
A quarter of a century later, he retraced the same path from Nigeria to Morocco to film his documentary, "No U-Turn," which has been selected in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival.
When he undertook the journey for the first time at the age of 20 in 1995, he says it felt like an "adventure," boosted by his youthful enthusiasm and a lack of knowledge of the outside world.
Today, those who attempt the same journey have access to a lot more information through the internet and social media. The people the filmmaker met through his documentary "knew the dangers. They had information; they knew that they could die," he told DW. "But they still choose to go ahead and do it. So what you see is a lot of desperation."
Two 'Generation Africa' films at the Berlinale
"No U-Turn" is one of two films selected by the Berlin International Film Festival that were created through the Generation Africa project.
Generation Africa is a series of 25 short, medium and feature-length documentary films from 16 African countries, all centering on the topic of youth and migration.
The project was launched by the South African non-governmental organization STEPS, along with DW Akademie, with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
The second work premiering in Berlin is "No Simple Way Home" by Akuol de Mabior. Her documentary is also the first film from South Sudan to be shown at the Berlinale.
The child of freedom fighters
"No Simple Way Home" is a personal film in which de Mabior pays tribute to her parents and her home country.
Her father, John Garang de Mabior, was a revolutionary leader whose movement led to the foundation of South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan in 2011.
But three weeks after he became first Vice President of Sudan in 2005, Garang died.
In 2013, the country plunged into a civil war that lasted more than six years. The years of conflict, along with extreme floods, have triggered one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in South Sudan.
Still, his family pursues the influential patriarch's political vision. In February 2020, the filmmaker's mother, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, became one of the five vice presidents of South Sudan in the country's so-called unity government.
Finding home after a life in exile
Akuol de Mabior's documentary also explores her own quest for identity and her search for the meaning of "home," which she's often defined as: "Home is where my mother is," but has realized meanwhile that the answer might also be a bit more complicated than that.
The filmmaker, who previously worked as a model, is also a businesswoman and women's rights activist with varied interests and ambitions. She grew up in Nairobi with her exiled family, but, as she told DW, "being the children of freedom fighters creates a strange patriotism. So even though we never lived in South Sudan, there was a sort of insistence or this feeling that we shouldn't get too comfortable in Kenya because eventually we're all going back to South Sudan."
In South Sudan, even the banknotes feature the image of her father, so it's hard to forget his legacy.
At first, Akuol de Mabior wasn't quite sure her story would fit into the framework of the Generation Africa project, which centers on migration. But she quickly realized that her journey offers another dimension to the topic — one that does not follow the typical narrative of Africans leaving their country out of desperation.
As she explains, in the South Sudanese context — and in many other African countries — "the question of what it means to come home is a new story on migration, because South Sudan is a new country and a lot of us grew up outside of the country, all over, scattered," she says. "So we have all these different cultures and now we have our own country and people are trying to come home. And so the question is, what does it mean to come home?"
African filmmakers connect
The Generation Africa project has allowed filmmakers to create new collaborative networks throughout the continent.
And even though COVID's impact on Africa is disastrous, director Ike Nnaebue comes up with an unexpected answer when asked how it has affected his work: "I think that the pandemic has helped the (film) industry," he says, and has contributed to the creation of more of those networks among African creatives, he adds.
He cites his own experience: In 2019, he was trying to find ways to do story labs with scriptwriters from different countries, but without flying them in physically. He didn't get very far when he first tried out the app he was recommended for the project: Zoom. "But then in 2020, a few months later," he says, "the pandemic happens, and everybody is like, zoom this, zoom that. I'm like, what?!"
He adds that since a lot more people are working from home, they are also turning to streaming films: "That's why Netflix is making a lot of business from Africa now, and because of that, Amazon is now in Nigeria commissioning content," he says. "So in a way, it has helped the industry to find new distribution models, because the old distribution model was that we were selling CDs and DVDs, and they were just terrible because piracy was just getting everything."
But beyond his online networking, the Nigerian filmmaker is also very excited to be traveling again.
After all, by an unexpected twist of fate, the same journey he had undertaken as a 20-year-old in the hope to reach Europe is now bringing him to Berlin to celebrate the premiere of his film, on February 14.
"No U-Turn" and "No Simple Way Home" will also be available on Arte in the summer of 2022.
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer
First published: February 14, 2022
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