Our Films, Our Peace

There are no cinemas on the Sudan – South Sudan border. But plenty of people watch films. In the market towns that deal in cross-border trade, people gather at video club shacks to watch football matches and Bollywood films. You can also pay a couple of pounds at a market stand to charge your mobile phone and have a small video clip bluetoothed onto it.

There’s something miraculous about these border trade towns. The South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr ElGhazal borders the Sudanese states of Darfur. Too far from Juba and the East Africa trade routes that bring goods from Kenya and Uganda, it receives most goods from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan. When the borders between the two embattled states close, the people on both side suffer.

And so the people on the border — northern and southern, “Arab” and “African”, Christian and Muslim, Misseriya and Dinka — understand perhaps better than anyone else the interdependence of the two nations. In fact, the Misseriya nomadic groups and Dinka cattle herders and farmers have been forging peace agreements for centuries, providing rights of passage to the Misseriya through Dinka land. The agreements are very important for avoiding violence in a volatile environment, and also provide a foundation for continuing trade regardless of politics between the two nations.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to what they say. Given the choice to make a film about a topic that united them, here’s what a group of young Misseriya and Dinka men produced:

Majok Nyithiou is one of these miraculous border trade towns. Near the disputed Abyei territory, at the entry point of a main Misseriya route, and in an area claimed by both nations, it is a strategic location for the Dinka-Misseriya Joint Border Peace Committee. The Committee convenes cross-border peace conferences, supports negotiation of migration and trade agreements, and then disseminates these agreements among local people. With patrchy mobile phone network and radio service, what that looks like is a couple of landcruisers loaded with a sound system, touring village after village for weeks.

Michaela Ledesma, Mia Bittar and I had come to Northern Bahr ElGhazal at the invitation of the VISTAS program to explore whether films, and specifically participatory video, could play a role in their work supporting efforts to reinvigorate cross-border economic ties, restore and improve relationships, and address divisions between the communities on both sides of the border.

When we were in Majok Nyithiou, the Committee members shared one difficulty: their peace conferences and dissemination don’t involve women and young men as well as they would like. And this is important, because women and youth are peace actors in their own right, with their own vision of the future and of how peace is built.

Empowered to chose what they wanted to say about peace, a group of women shot this film that shows peaceful coexistence is critically linked to the availability of water:

The films above were made by two mixed Misseriya-Dinka, Sudanese-South Sudanese groups — one young men, one women — working together with our support over a three week period in March 2015. None of them had touched a camera before. Only 5 of them can read and write. Many told us it was the first time they had been asked to express their opinion. A principal strength of participatory video methodologies is engaging hard-to-reach, marginalized groups. We adapted this methodology to a peacebuilding context. If you’re interested in learning more, you can download our 1st edition of a “Participatory Video for Peacebuilding” manual.

The films you see here were their idea. They planned them out on paper, filmed every single shot you see, recorded all the interviews, and chose what images and voices would go in the final cuts. We facilitated the process, guided them in the use of cameras and sound equipment. We also took their paper edit (where they had picked the shots / voices) and executed it in the editing software.

The films’ premiere in Majok Nyithiou — on a white sheet strung across the dusty football field — drew hundreds of people. The groups are hoping to tour the films to other towns along the border, maybe show them at video clubs. They would also like to make more films, and have kept all the equipment. They’ll need to learn editing on a computer so they can finish films on their own; we’re hoping to go back and work with them on editing skills in the near future.

On our last day in Majok, we sat with the two groups to talk about how the filmmaking process had changed them. It was evident it had been incredibly powerful for the individuals involved. One of the women told a story that sums it up. On the day of the film screening, she put on the group tshirt, which said “Our Films, Our Peace” in English, Dinka and Arabic. Her son looked at her, and mocked:

What are you doing with that tshirt? You can’t even read.

To which she replied:

I might not be able to read, but I know how to make films.

On the surface, it may appear that this initiative had a strong, direct effect on the empowerment of the people involved, but only an indirect effect on peacebuilding. But that would be a misunderstanding of the context. The Dinka-Malual and Misseriya have a very conflicted history. Majok may be peaceful now, but it hasn’t always been, and it’s rare that these two groups speak with one voice. The young men and women who made these films were already exceptions in their community, people willing to speak up for peace. Their deliberate choice to make films that celebrate the fragile peace in Majok underscores their role as peacebuilders. They have a strong desire for their community and leaders to hear this.

These films contributed to transforming a group of peace advocates, who now have a powerful tool to develop and amplify their own voice. As the Joint Border Peace Committee knows, peace is not just built through agreements between leaders. It takes many voices, together creating a new discourse of peace. The voices of these young men and women, jointly celebrating peace and calling out problems the two communities share, are moving the political discourse beyond the status quo and into a future of peaceful interdependence.

Cross-posted from the Build Up Medium.

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