Filmmaker interview: Akuol de Mabior

Events  /  20th June 2024

It’s no secret that one of our highlights in 2022 has been Director Akuol de Mabior’s debut feature No Simple Way Home. She started making the film with an intention of seeking her own identity as South Sudanese.

3 year’s later, the film is creating global waves from being the first South Sudanese film to premiere at multiple festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival and raising pertinent questions on migration and identity.

How do you feel after having your world premiere for No Simple Way Home?
The opportunity to screen our film at the Berlin International Film Festival in February was thrilling and humbling. There was so much goodwill around the film and the trip, and I was surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. I also met people in person for the first time who have been invaluable in their support for the project, like Jane Ray and Jane Mote from the Whickers and Isabelle Arate from IDFA Bertha. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better way to introduce the film to the world.

From the point you started making the film until now, what have you discovered about yourself? Are there things you’d do differently?
At the start of the process, I had big ambitions for the project but little clarity. I feel moving forward that, clarity should come before ambition. Also, as a documentary filmmaker, I’m committed to truth and actuality, which means that I have to be prepared to change directions if what unfolds in the making calls for it. What actually happens can change the shape of a story, and from this, I’ve discovered the value of letting go and that I don’t always need to be in control of everything. I think that this discovery is helping me to be a better storyteller. 

Why did you choose documentary as a medium of telling this story?
I was afraid that my mother’s story and how it is linked to the story of our country would be overshadowed by my father’s legacy. When I look at African liberation struggle stories, I wonder where are the women? In the process of making the film, it became less about looking back and remembering, or not forgetting, and more about where we are now in South Sudan and what role my mother may play today and in the future. Documentary film as a medium allows the shape of a story to evolve and transform, and I find that very attractive. 

Are you planning to screen the film in South Sudan? What are your expectations of how people will receive the film back home?
We do plan to screen the film in South Sudan. We’re trying to be very intentional and responsible in our approach. The early responses to news of the film have mainly been encouraging but, at times, mixed. We have a tremendous opportunity to foster rich and robust conversations through the film. I’m sure that there will be many things that we cannot expect or predict, and I can’t wait to experience them. I really like the idea of conversations between audience members as much as conversations between the audience and the filmmakers.  

No Simple Way Home is your journey of questioning your identity as South Sudanese. Have you found any answers this far?
As the title suggests, there have been no simple resolutions. What I want more than a simple resolution is room to think and talk about what it means to be South Sudanese. From conversations with my sister, Nyankuir, I’ve come to appreciate her different perspective on her South Sudanese identity. Her perspective challenged mine in a way that I found refreshing. I always say I want room to make up my own mind when I think about going to South Sudan and my South Sudanese identity. And then Nyankuir said to me, “[she] feels like [she’s] been guided on a path that [she] can respect.” Her perspective on country, duty, family, identity, and patriotism is very different from mine, and I’m thankful for it. I think that building a national identity happens on both individual as well as collective levels, and I hope that we can contribute to this through the film.

What exists of the filmmaking and storytelling culture in South Sudan? Are there things you are excited about?

From the little I’ve seen in the three years I’ve spent filming in South Sudan, we have a lot to offer in terms of storytelling. However, people are wary of cameras and recording devices because South Sudan has been characterized as a disastrous place. There is immense tragedy, chaos and turmoil in the story of our country, but this is not the whole story. From the early responses we’ve received about the film, I think South Sudanese people are yearning for new narratives and perspectives about our country. There are also beautiful traditions like passing on stories through song, which features in the film. I would be excited to see a South Sudanese filmmaker or artist focus on the role of songs in our storytelling traditions.

How has your family responded to watching the film?
My mother, my sister’s and I watched the film before the World Premiere, and it was a moment that we will cherish. My mother loves the film and was very moved by it. I had no idea how she would respond. I thought she might raise concerns about how much to disclose in the film, about the more intimate moments, but she just loved it. I was amazed by her response because that screening was the first time she saw anything of the film after three years of filming. 

What advise would you give to filmmakers looking to tell their personal stories?
You have to be prepared for emotional labour. If you can, find a way to take as much time as you need. Have a team that is supportive and that you can be vulnerable around. 

Are you relieved that the film is done? What comes next for you?
I am certainly relieved that we finished the job we set out to do. I'm working on a few projects. Watch this space. 


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