Wesconnect caught up with filmmaker Andrew Berends ’94 earlier this year at South by Southwest, where he premiered his latest documentary Madina’s Dream, a film about an ongoing and largely ignored war in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Though it is a film with an “inherently crushing subject,” The Austin Chronicle found that it is “presented with such care and curiosity that, although heart-wrenching, Madina’s Dream isn’t depressing. The film is lovely, actually.”
Madina, who was eleven when Andrew shot the documentary, is now thirteen and still in the refugee camp. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled to the mountains or refugee camps following the continued violence after South Sudan became independent in 2011. This film builds a riveting narrative of Madina’s dream—a brighter future for her people—beginning with the startling image of “Toys of War,” clay recreations of the homes they left behind. The movie provides a poetic perspective on the toll of war, the people left in limbo, and the strength of these stories of home. At great risk to himself, Andrew follows these stories and creates one that may be even inspiring, a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit.
Andrew is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker. He has made five feature documentaries in Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan and the Netherlands; these include The Blood of My Brother, When Adnan Comes Home and Delta Boys.
WESCONNECT: What have the last two years been like, working on this film?
ANDREW BERENDS: I started two and a half years ago––it involved a total of five months filming in Sudan: about one month in the refugee camp and four months in the Nuba mountains. It was physically the toughest film I’ve made. It was quite remote; there were very few places with electricity, but people there were incredibly hospitable and open to being filmed. They hadn’t been overloaded with cameras and journalists before.
There are 700-900 refugees crossing out of the Nuba mountains into Sudan everyday, almost doubling since I was there. This conflict involves ground fighting and aerial bombardment, and starvation. But at the same time it’s a forgotten war. Nobody really knows about it. That’s why I wanted to do this documentary.
WC: And you’ve done a lot of documentaries like that, what draws you to these kinds of subjects?
AB: Awful things?
WC: Yes, awful things.
AB: The first one I did, The Blood of My Brother, was in Iraq in 2004 and I was drawn to that largely because it was kind of the biggest story of the time for my generation, for whoever’s generation.
It was eight months into the war and I was Christmas shopping in New York when I remember feeling this disconnect, that our country was at war but it didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t help feeling that in Baghdad, it must have been very different. I wanted to close that distance. So I went to Iraq and once I was there, on the ground, I started to get my bearings and I made two films there over the course of six months. The second one was When Adnan Comes Home.
I loved it. It felt like something meaningful to do, and I thought I was good at it. I saw footage of militants in speed boats with these big guns in the Niger Delta––it was visually exciting. After researching the story, I felt that it was a globally important story about the human cost of the world’s unquenchable thirst for cheap oil. So I went to Nigeria for six months and shot a film in the Niger Delta where I lived, literally, in the jungle in militant camps. I finally got caught by the government, was detained for ten days and kicked out of the country.
WC: And a New York Times article was written about you.
AB: Yeah, which was probably the best publicity I ever had. Unfortunately the film didn’t come out right at that time. [laughs] I couldn’t quite ride that wave of publicity. It was awful. I was charged with espionage, which was absurd. I told them I was a journalist and they told me I was a spy. In the end, they didn’t have a case against me. Well, they kicked me out on visa charges and they weren’t completely… I had fudged it a little bit.
That film is called Delta Boys. Then I shot two films for another director and went to Sudan for an exploratory trip, which is how I learned about the war in the Nuba mountains. I was not ready to jump in and do another independent documentary because it takes a few years. It’s not a good way to make money. It’s very hard. It’s painful sometimes.
WC: And life-threatening.
AB: It’s life-threatening. Definitely there’s that. But I’m so glad I did it. I met these girls, Madina and her two friends Howa and Aziza, who had a story that needed to be told. It was almost a moral issue. I thought, “alright, someone has to do it, I guess that’s gonna be me.” And then I had to totally commit, spending four months with my translator, 24 hours a day together, working all day, finding places to sleep. We slept outside entirely.
WC: You said you did a thesis at Wesleyan?
AB: I did a thesis film. It’s awful. Have you seen it?
AB: It’s called The White Balloon. A poetic love story. I’d been watching Hal Hartley movies back then, that were understated and subtle and had pastel colors and mood. So it was kind of a nice film.
WC: Is there anything you know about Wesleyan that others may not?
AB: I’m a little ashamed of having been such a bad student at Wesleyan. There were a lot of distractions. There’s also this creative side, there are a lot of amazing students and teachers. So it comes back to me—I wish I had been a better student while I was there. But any crazy stories? None that I care to repeat.
Image: c/o IndieWire
Share this link: wesconnect.wesleyan.edu/news-20150722-andrew-berends
- South by South Wes?
- New York Times: “Toys of War” Op-Doc
- SXSW film review: ‘Madina’s Dream’
Meet the 2015 SXSW filmmakers: Andrew Berends’ ‘Madina’s Dream’ is a young girl’s take on war
- Andrew Berends talks about being arrested in Nigeria
- Madina’s Dream on Amazon Instant Video
- Andrew Berends’ website
Don’t have a Facebook account, but want to comment? Email us.