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CU alum captures bicultural identity of Sudanese-American creatives in ‘Revolution from Afar’

Award-winning filmmaker Bentley Brown recently completed his doctorate at CU Boulder

Tanya Saliha, a Denver-based musician known as Zanib, performs at an event in Denver. The image is a still from filmmaker Bentley Brown’s 2020 documentary “Revolution from Afar,” that shines a light on creatives of Sudanese origin raising awareness about the uprising that occurred in the African country in 2019. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
Tanya Saliha, a Denver-based musician known as Zanib, performs at an event in Denver. The image is a still from filmmaker Bentley Brown’s 2020 documentary “Revolution from Afar,” that shines a light on creatives of Sudanese origin raising awareness about the uprising that occurred in the African country in 2019. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
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To be a great documentary filmmaker, one has to possess a healthy sense of curiosity, a keen ability to observe and usually a desire to bring awareness to a specific issue.

A still from Bentley Brown's 2020 documentary "Revolution from Afar." (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
A still from Bentley Brown’s 2020 documentary “Revolution from Afar.” (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

Giving us behind-the-scenes glimpses into people’s lives, documentarians are perhaps some of the last watchdogs of our time.

Bentley Brown — University of Colorado Boulder doctoral graduate — captures slices of life both within the U.S. and abroad.

Prior to attending CU, Brown was a lecturer in filmmaking and interactive media at Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Brown — who has a master’s in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s in international studies from Emory University — moved to Chad, a landlocked country at the crossroads of North and Central Africa, with his family at age 11.

Movie-goers gather at CU Boulder for a screening of Bentley Brown's 2020 documentary "Revolution from Afar" in November 2021. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
Movie-goers gather at CU Boulder for a screening of Bentley Brown’s 2020 documentary “Revolution from Afar” in November 2021. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

Much of his documentaries and fictional films are rooted in identity, the concept of juggling two cultures, and a sense of belonging, or lack thereof.

In May 2022, his documentary “Revolution From Afar,” aired as part of the finale for season 14 of “AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” on PBS’s World Channel.

In the entertainingly 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 erupting in their faraway homeland.

In 2019, protests across Sudan led to the downfall of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ran the country with an iron fist for 30 years and has been accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab, a musician known as Sinkane, was born in London and raised in America by Sudanese parents. He and other creatives of Sudanese descent are featured in Bentley Brown's documentary "Revolution from Afar." (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab, a musician known as Sinkane, was born in London and raised in America by Sudanese parents. He and other creatives of Sudanese descent are featured in Bentley Brown’s documentary “Revolution from Afar.” (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

Through intimate conversations and footage of moving performances, Brown weaved together a thoughtful piece that spotlights art as activism on screen. The doc showcases first-generation Sudanese youth crafting poetry, music even stand-up comedy in response to the injustices of their motherland and growing up in the States apart from 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 honored a late mentor of his who had a significant influence on his career path.

When Brown moved to Chad from Texas in 1999, a man that everyone referred to as Oustaz, or “teacher,” taught him how to read and write in Arabic. In addition to helping him navigate a foreign language, he encouraged him to explore radio, music, painting and filmmaking. They pursued creative endeavors together.

Brown’s documentary short “First Feature”— released in 2019 — centers around a team of mostly women filmmakers working in secret toward creating their first feature film in Saudi Arabia, at a time when moviemaking was illegal.

Filmmaker Bentley Brown, left, in a still from his 2016 documentary short "Oustaz." (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
Filmmaker Bentley Brown, left, in a still from his 2016 documentary short “Oustaz.” (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

Up until April 2018, cinemas had been banned for nearly 40 years in Saudi Arabia.

We caught up with the award-winning filmmaker to find out more about his work, his early memories of creating film and what we can expect from him next.

Kalene McCort: What was your experience like making “Revolution From Afar,” and what do you hope viewers take away?

Bentley Brown: When Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was deposed in 2019 after 30 years of rule, I was a little flabbergasted as to why international media wasn’t really covering the popular protests that led to his removal and the ensuing military crackdown. I’m from the United States, originally, but moved as a kid to Chad, which neighbors Sudan to the west.

In “Revolution From Afar,” I touch base with friends of mine, Sudanese-American poets and musicians, to listen to them speak of what it was like to watch such traumatic events an ocean away, in the meantime feeling a duty to be a part of the Sudanese revolution. Whereas the film is sparked by these political events, it gravitates toward the very question of belonging to Sudan. Can one really be “100% Sudanese” and “100% American” at the same time? These are questions I struggled with myself, having grown up between countries and cultures.

Poet Bayadir Mohamed-Osman and other creatives of Sudanese descent are featured in Bentley Brown's documentary "Revolution from Afar." (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
Poet Bayadir Mohamed-Osman and other creatives of Sudanese descent are featured in Bentley Brown’s documentary “Revolution from Afar.” (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

KM: What would you say was the most rewarding aspect of growing up in Chad?

BB: One of my friends growing up, Djiddo Djamil, teasingly told me that I had benefited tremendously by learning Arabic and French from my friends in Chad, but hadn’t taught anyone English in return. He’s not wrong. My time in Chad impacted my sense of self by expanding 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 language and cultural environments.

But like many others in this situation, I also have difficulty feeling like I truly belong or fit in wherever I am. Whether it’s my appearance or perceived identity or nationality or dialect of Arabic, these aspects evoke all kinds of assumptions on a daily basis in pretty much any place I live, whether it’s Chad or Texas or Saudi Arabia, where I lived before moving to Boulder for my Ph.D. studies.

A still of filmmaker Bentley Brown from his 2016 documentary short "Oustaz." (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
A still of filmmaker Bentley Brown from his 2016 documentary short “Oustaz.” (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

KM: Do you remember what sparked your interest in filmmaking? Any standout moments when you knew this art form would be a part of your career path?

BB: Abakar Chene Massar, one of my friends from my teenage soccer team, was also a playwright. He came to me with the idea of — if we were able to get a video camera — shooting a movie with a fictional story set in Chad and revolving around the AIDS pandemic, which many people denied was real. What we thought would be a short film turned into almost an hour cut, edited on a VCR of all things. We showed this movie to our town in a packed out courtyard, and eventually it screened on Chadian national television.

The warm reception to our filmmaking efforts led to two more films together, the last one of which, “Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou,” about a young man using drugs to imagine himself leaving Chad to play professional soccer in Europe, screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2010. I still didn’t take filmmaking seriously as a career, though, and I dabbled in the field of international relations for a bit until filmmaking friends of mine in Sudan, where I was living at the time, convinced me to give full-time filmmaking a shot.

A still from Bentley Brown's 2012 fictional short "Faisal Goes West" that centers around a protagonist who abandons his dream of attending an American university to work on a chicken farm after he makes a mistake resulting in a financial blow for his family. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)
A still from Bentley Brown’s 2012 fictional short “Faisal Goes West,” a film that centers around a protagonist who abandons his dream of attending an American university to work on a chicken farm after he makes a mistake resulting in a financial blow for his family. (Bentley Brown/Aboudigin Films/Courtesy photo)

I returned to the U.S. and shot “Faisal Goes West,” a drama in which a young man moves from Sudan to Texas in search of a better life but winds up working on a chicken farm. And since then, I’ve stuck to filmmaking and the arts, most recently completing my Ph.D. at CU in a department called Critical Media Practices which encourages art practice — such as the films I make — alongside scholarly research.

KM: What’s next for you? Any future projects or goals of yours that should be on our radar?

BB: I’ll be leaving Boulder at the end of the summer, likely for a teaching job in filmmaking and certainly to continue making films. I have projects based in Chad, Saudi Arabia and Sudan set for release in the next couple years. If you’re into languages, I spend way too much time making Arabic dialect videos for TikTok.

To learn more visit, aboudigin.com

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