Filmmaker Roopa Gogineni sits down with GOOD DOCS Intern Madeleine Mount-Cors to discuss her film I AM BISHA
Could you give a brief summary of I AM BISHA?
The film is a dark comedy from the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where government and rebel forces have been fighting for many years. It’s a mashup of scenes from Bisha TV — a satirical web series starring the puppet personas of former President Omar al-Bashir, and his genocidal henchman, Hemeti — and those from the life of Ganja, the puppeteer who controls the President’s head.
What sparked your interest in Sudan and how did you come across the puppet show featured in the film?
I’ve been based out of Nairobi, Kenya since 2011. Over the years I’ve become friends with many Sudanese journalists and activists living in exile, from whom I’ve learned about the ongoing wars and resistance movements in Sudan. Foreign journalists rarely received visas to Sudan, and Sudanese journalists were regularly arrested and tortured, so most critical reporting happened from a distance. In 2015 I eventually found a way into the Nuba Mountains, rebel-held territory in the southern part of Sudan, to hold a video editing workshop for journalists there. Another group of journalists and a drama group were simultaneously filming an episode of “Bisha TV,” and so after our workshop wrapped, I began filming with them.
Why do you think the puppet show had such a visible effect on anyone who saw it or was able to actually maneuver the puppet themselves?
The style of puppets used in Bisha TV are incredibly lifelike and are not common in Sudan. The show was filmed in villages around the Nuba Mountains, and the crew relished in dramatically revealing the puppets from under a cloth or out of a suitcase. Kids would run screaming. Here at their feet was the man responsible for years of bombing and war. For the puppeteers, manipulating the heads and bodies of Bisha (a nickname for al-Bashir) and Hemeti was liberating. These two men had been more or less controlling their lives for decades, and now they could be left in a hole with a pig, or made to dance, or zipped neatly into a suitcase and thrown into the back of a truck.
Could you describe the puppet show’s writing and production? Who were the writers and what was the process to prepare for each show?
The writers were a mix of journalists and members of a drama group. They wrote scripts in the shade of a great mango tree, from which they also snacked. They also drank lots of Nuba coffee, which is hand-roasted and mixed with ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom. After they arrived at a final script they would record the actors voicing the parts of Bisha and Hemetti, and then film the scenes with the puppets and actors, playing back the recorded audio. Most scenes were filmed outside but there was also an indoor studio, one wall of which they’d painted red (they didn’t have green paint for a green screen.) It turns out a red screen works much less well because people have red tones in their skin.
Was “Bisha TV” influenced by any other satirical puppet shows?
“Bisha TV” was influenced by two other satirical puppet shows on the continent- “The XYZ Show” in Kenya and “ZANEWS” in South Africa. Both these programs upset politicians and struggled to find broadcasters but are hugely popular. With a much smaller budget, “Bisha TV” took a more guerrilla approach, filming mostly outside and mixing live action with puppets.
Who made the puppets? Where were they made?
The puppets were made over the course of several months by a talented puppet fabricator in South Africa, who formerly worked on “ZANEWS.” He brought them to the Nuba Mountains himself, and trained two teams of puppeteers to manipulate the puppets.
How was “Bisha TV” distributed online? Was it able to reach a wide audience?
The creators of “Bisha TV” knew that no Sudanese broadcaster would ever touch their show, so they handled distribution themselves. The episodes were uploaded to Facebook and YouTube over a satellite connection, where they received several million views. Low-resolution versions of each episode were pushed out through WhatsApp groups, which we assume went far and wide, though there is no way to get these metrics. Offline, the puppet show was screened in pop-up cinemas like the one shown at the end of the film. “Bisha TV” gained a new life during the recent revolution and the episodes were projected publicly during demonstrations.
What is your target audience for the film?
I had three very different target audiences which made editing a constant struggle and balancing act! I wanted to make the film for Sudanese living in marginalized parts of the country, who have lived through incomprehensible violence. I wanted people in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Darfur to laugh, to feel emboldened, and connected in their struggle. The second audience was in capital Khartoum, where the “news” painted those living in conflict zones as terrorists and infidels. I wanted this film to cross the front lines, to introduce Sudanese to their fellow citizens. Finally, I sought to make a film that was accessible to an international audience unfamiliar with the politics or history of Sudan. The challenge was conveying necessary context without being reductionist or interrupting the experiential journey of the film.
What was the most difficult thing for you to see or experience while filming I AM BISHA?
I took three filming trips to the Nuba Mountains at a time when the government was consistently bombing rebel military and civilian targets. As soon as we heard the sound of the notorious Antonov plane, we would run to the nearest foxhole and wait for the bomb to drop. Though I hid in foxholes several times, the bombs never landed nearby. It was a small glimpse of the everyday psychological abuse suffered by people there. Over the years journalists in the Nuba Mountains have meticulously documented thousands of bombings, and it was going through that archival footage that I began to see the true horror of these bombings. There were also the logistical challenges of traveling to an extremely remote area behind rebel lines, but considering that people in Nuba walk for days to reach a destination, any difficulty or discomfort I experienced felt insignificant.
What hardships do people in the Nuba Mountains continue to face since filming? What is the current situation in Sudan and South Sudan?
In the time since I finished this film, millions of Sudanese took to the streets and brought down Omar al-Bashir in April of 2019, after three decades of despotic rule. Despite this achievement, the protestors’ demands for a civilian government were not met, and Hemeti, the other puppet villain in “Bisha TV”, has risen to vice-chair of the Sovereignty Council, the eleven-member body that now serves as the collective head of state. The military members of the council increasingly sideline the civilian leaders, endangering the fate of the revolution. The government signed a peace deal with the major rebel movements in August of 2020, but violence in Darfur continues, and the ascension of the military in Khartoum jeopardizes long term peace. I recently returned to the Nuba Mountains, where the bombing has stopped, but the relations with the capital have not been normalized. This means little aid reaches the region, there is no phone service or internet, and travel in and out is still severely restricted.
What do you imagine for the outreach of this film? What kind of settings and discussions should be tied to this film?
The lessons of “Bisha TV” hold resonance in a classroom and beyond, for students and practitioners, activists and journalists. The film documents a powerful example of independent media in a state where journalists are persecuted for doing their jobs. The puppet show empowered its creators with a voice that crossed the front lines of the conflict and contested government propaganda. I hope the film generates discussion about art and humor as tools of nonviolent resistance, and about the role of new media in speaking truth to power. I know Sudan may be a distant reality for many audiences, but the themes are universal, and I believe the film offers an opportunity for viewers to reflect on their own communities, on related instances of creative expression, or opportunities for new takes on media.
What does I AM BISHA teach us about resistance against oppression?
The film teaches us that resistance to authoritarian rule takes shape in many forms. We should look to the people around the world who live under oppressive regime as experts in how to resist and subvert, how to hold power to account, in the most extreme conditions.
In your opinion, what is the most poignant moment in the film?
The scene that hits hardest for me is the last scene of the film, when Ganja and the other puppeteers host a screening of Bisha TV in a neighboring village. I remember being surprised by the number of people that showed up for the event, around 200 came, some with their own chairs. There is a moment when a man in the audience points out an Antonov plane on screen, and then starts to laugh. For me this is the heart of the film, the power of irreverence, how quickly it can turn the “victims'' of bombings into people with power and agency.