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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Title photo and above, screenshots from Faisal Goes West, written and directed by film maker, Bentley Brown, pictured below. Young Sudanese American actor and musician, Ramey Dawoud, above, plays the title role.

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Both tender and hard-hitting, Faisal Goes West documents how identities are negotiated by a Sudanese family facing up to the realities of life as immigrants to The United States. See the story behind the film in Bentley Brown Aljazeera Interview.

Central to the film is the director’s understanding of linguistic integrity.  The Sudanese cast were encouraged to improvise their dialogue using the colloquial Sudanese Arabic of their homeland. Bentley talks about this, the complexities of cultural identity, Arabic dialects and his affection for Sudanese culture in our conversation below.  

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“Nowhere and Everywhere”

In Conversation with Bentley Brown – Identity, Dialect and Film

Bentley Brown – A Brief Profile; Life Across Three Cultures  In Conversation – Identity, Dialect and Film 

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Bentley Brown – Life Across Three Cultures 

Bentley is a film producer and director, known for Jeddah Vlog, Khawadjat, 2016 and the award-winning Captain Majid in 2009. He is also a writer, Arabic dialectologist, researcher and committed advocate for cross-cultural understanding through film.  

Bentley has been widely interviewed in the Arabic speaking world for his love of Arab and Afro-Arab culture, as well as his native speaker proficiency in both Classical and several dialects of Arabic, including Chadian and Sudanese Arabic. (See, for example, Interview (Arabic) Sudania 24 TV). His numerous, punchy Youtube and Instagram videos on Sudanese and Chadian Arabic, such as They speak Arabic in Chad?, are a great resource for anyone learning these dialects. His latest TikTok/Instagram video revels in the rich diversity of both Arabic dialects – and coffee. 

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Born in America, Bentley was brought up in Chad and was to immerse himself in Sudanese life as a young man.  His recent work explores the nature of “third culture” identity and experience.  See Bentley Brown – What is a Third Culture Kid?  and Revolution from Afar.

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“Trying to swim between American and Sudanese, between two lands that were never meant to meet…..”  (from poem by Khadeja Mohammed) – exploring complex identities in Revolution from Afar. 

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Khawadjat distills moments from Bentley’s film journal of his childhood in a Chadian town.  It was during his time there that he developed the fascination for home cinema that was to shape his future life. 

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In Conversation – Identity, Dialect and Film

Imogen Thurbon (IT) Bentley, first of all,  thank you for your kindness in talking to me today, when I know you are very busy. 

Bentley Brown (BB) I live and breathe to discuss filmmaking and dialectology. It is I who should be thanking you.img_5060IT You recently made a Youtube video, Quarantine in America, on living through Coronavirus lockdown US style and  I was struck by your comment that you say trying to divide up a communal Ethiopian meal at a restaurant almost “made your head explode”.  You are an American whose formative years were lived in an Afro-Arab culture. Could you tell us a little more about the cultural juggling act this dual identity brings and how you resolve it? 

BB Having white-ish American friends suggest we eat Ethiopian food, arriving at the restaurant in the early stages of the Covid lockdown and realizing we’ll have to cut up injera with a knife and fork – I think this would all make anyone’s head explode.  

I was born in the United States but moved as a kid to the north-central African country of Chad, where my father worked as a medical doctor. My mom is an engineer and taught my brother and me all the way up through high school. Once in Chad, we first lived in the capital city, Ndjamena, before moving to a small town in central Chad called Ati, on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. 

My brother and I were the only white kids in the town and, apart from some Sudanese and Libyans, the only “foreigners”. Thus began my quest to fit in.  I hated sticking out when we first moved to Ati. At times, groups of kids would follow us wherever we went, shouting words that meant foreigner or outsider. A local government official, one of my father’s friends, suggested I join a soccer team. I did, and this greatly improved my Arabic, and integrated me into the neighborhood. Today, many years later, I no longer identify as “an [X] or [Y]” when it comes to nationality and culture.  

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IT It’s a cultural juggling act shared by Sudanese immigrants to the US, as you document so powerfully in Faisal Goes West. How do you see prospects for intercultural understanding in the US? And what role would you like to see education play in this, particularly at primary and secondary level? 

BB Despite an increasing level of awareness and appreciation for cultural diversity, the US has a difficult time speaking about race and culture in terms that aren’t absolute, or black-and-white (pun very much intended). 

In addition to Faisal Goes West, my most recent film, Revolution from Afar, which premiered at this year’s Sudan Independent Film Festival, focuses on the hybrid, “third-culture”identity that so often emerges when families move across borders. Children struggling to fit into their new homeland as well as into the homeland of their parents often voice a sentiment that they wind up fitting in “nowhere and everywhere” at the same time. 

I’m not doing any quantitative research on the topic, but it sees that a massive part of America’s population may relate in some way to this experience, which is essentially absent from the discourse. I imagine it would be helpful for schools and textbooks to acknowledge third-culture, bicultural, biracial, multicultural, and multiracial identities, in order to offer kids affirmation at a young age. 

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It You have said that film can reach across cultural differences in ways more theoretical approaches can’t. Is this the preserve of the small independent filmmaker or do you see changes within the film industry as a whole towards a more culturally inclusive vision?

BB This is the sort of energy behind Faisal Goes West, a belief that fictional filmmaking offers an imaginative space, open to interpretation, with the potential to be more powerful and thought-provoking than some of the more one-sided, agenda-driven documentary films with overt political messages.  I have since changed my understanding of filmmaking: everything is constructed, there is essentially no difference between fiction and non-fiction.  

Regarding cultural inclusion,  I’m concerned that filmmaking will always rely on the use of quick symbolism based on cultural stereotypes in order to effectively create a narrative. My hope is less in the films themselves to abandon the use of stereotypes but more so in audiences becoming more critical, thus enabling future filmmakers to work within a more nuanced space.  

Below, Helen Goodvin in Faisal Goes West 

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Take for example, the recent Netflix production from Belgium, Into the Night. The series introduces stereotypical characters, one after the other. The writers, however, bank on the audience already being aware that these are indeed stereotypes and they use this to their advantage to not only challenge these stereotypes but to also tell a narrative that leaves behind absolutist notions of identity.

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Your film, Khawadjat is poignant – almost wistful. How would you say your Chadian upbringing shaped your character and view of the world? What do you value most about that time? 

BB These are huge questions, ones that I’m spending a bulk of my PhD at the University of Colorado-Boulder answering. Check back with me in a few years.

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IT You have also spoken with great affection of Sudan and Sudanese culture.  Can you tell us a little more about why Sudanese culture holds such appeal? 

BB In Chad, many people look up to Sudan as a place of cultural production (particularly music and comedy) as well as a better standard of living. I grew up listening to Sudanese musicians, and hearing stories about how, in Sudan, there are amusement parks, large grocery stores, and ice-cream. When I moved to Sudan as part of my first job out of college, I felt like a kid in a candy store — Sudan was culturally familiar to me, but, unlike Chad, there were opportunities for recreation, electricity, paved roads, education, and arts. I know this sounds weird for many Sudanese people to hear, as there is an ongoing struggle to improve Sudan after decades of marginalization and war. But this is how it felt to live there after having grown up in Chad. See too Bentley’s Sudan Top Ten

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IT Could you tell us a little about you experience of learning Chadian and Sudanese Arabic and your remarkable teacher and musician, (Oustaz – Berlinale 2016)   

BB The film Oustaz chronicles my relationship with, and grief over the premature death of, a teacher in Ati from whom I learnt not only to read and write Arabic, but also to play guitar and oud. As depicted in the film, this teacher, who went by the nickname “Oustaz” (“Professor,” or “Master” [of an art] ) and whose full name is Mahamat Ali Boukhary, was also a musician, painter, and philosopher-at-large. His premature death in 2010, which I attribute to depression, shook up many in my generation who had learned from him over the years.  The film ponders, in Oustaz’s absence, who will carry the mantle for the next generation.  See too Oustaz live in Khartoum.

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Slate.com

IT What advice can you give to students of Arabic who, like me graduated in Classical Arabic and yet couldn’t hold a simple conversation with real speakers and who know that they will never be native speaker proficient. Despair or battle on? And how?

BB I cannot overstate the importance of learning more than one dialect of Arabic. 

Many Arabic speakers will insist that “Fusha”, or Classical Arabic, is “pure”, and that dialects are some sort of offshoot, at best, interesting quirks of, and at worst, corruptions of, Classical Arabic. From the perspective of linguistics, this is utter nonsense, as language is constantly evolving and there is no such thing as a monolithic “pure” language. 

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Many Arabic speakers will note that a large number of Arabic learners speak a robotic, Fusha-dominated version of Arabic and tell you that to sound better, you should learn a dialect in addition to Fusha. Complicating this notion slightly, some dialectologists have even argued that all native Arabic speakers work along a continuum spanning Fusha to dialect, even in their everyday vernacular. From this point of view, it’s a lot more complicated than just speaking Fusha or a dialect. Rather, in speech, the two maintain a dialectical (and again, pun intended) relationship: one cannot exist without the other. 

The knowledge of two or more dialects is essential because it starts to help you see where the lexicon and grammar of one dialect “end”, and where those of another “begin”. Hopefully it begins to destroy the notion, preached by many native Arabic speakers, that X dialect is “purer” or “closer” to Fusha”.img_5060

IT “The hedgehog eats peanuts”. You say this was the first expression you learnt in Chadian Arabic as a child.  By imitating the sounds and intonation of this phrase, you started to get a feel for Chadian Arabic as it was really spoken. 

See Aaron Brown’s beautiful prose piece: The Hedgehog eats Peanuts

When making Faisal Goes West, you instructed the Sudanese cast to improvise their dialogue in colloquial Sudanese Arabic. Why was this so important and what is the linguistic integrity you are advocating?

BB It is extremely annoying to see Hollywood films –  or any film, really – try to slip improbable accents and vocabulary past an audience. From a filmmaker’s perspective, this comes off as simply ignorant on behalf of the writer and director, or lazy — did they not hire a dialogue/language coach for a film with lines in Arabic/Farsi/ Urdu/etc? Even films with more “familiar” subjects, such as American productions with Spanish, or even Southern English accents, that they can’t pull off — ugh! I digress…

I had originally written Faisal Goes West in English and Arabic.  The English for what screenwriters call the “action” of the screenplay (essentially the “stage direction” and any nonverbal movements) as well as the English dialogue; and the Arabic for Arabic dialogue. However, since I was workshopping the script in Dallas-based screenwriter groups at the time, I had to revert the entire script to English — this is, ”colonial” or “hegemonic” as it may be, industry standard. When the final script was ready, I chose to hand it in English to all our cast. Those with Arabic lines were already bilingual English/Arabic speakers.  I felt this gave them an opportunity to translate the dialogue into the Arabic vernacular that they would, as individuals, use. We still workshopped it prior to shooting, and I think the overall result, while not perfect, was better and more “natural” sounding than having them read these lines off a script. 

That said, I no longer believe in the notion of a hardline linguistic integrity, as language is a construct and any artistic rendition is already taking shortcuts and using abbreviative symbolism to convey its message at the expense of nuance. 

Learn more about linguistic integrity in film in Bentley Brown, lecture to Academy for Cultural Diplomacy  

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IT Thank you so much for your time, Bentley. 

BB Thank you! It is an honor to be given the space to talk about these subjects. I sometimes feel no one is interested in this staff anymore, and here I am writing a PhD on it. 

IT I think everyone reading this will be looking forward to seeing the articles, books and films that come out of you research. 

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Ramey Dawoud As Faisal in Faisal Goes West 

img_5060This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership. 

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Above, international expert in grassroots literacy training, Dr. Leila Bashir – our colleague and partner.  Photographed in El-Fatih literacy circle.  Copyright, Imogen Thurbon. 

We recognize that with a highly diglossic language such as Arabic, reading and writing both formal Classical and Sudanese Arabic empowers Sudanese women who have never had the chance to attend school. 

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http://www.womenseducationpartnership.org

We also work in South Sudan. See Women’s Education Partnership US

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If you are interested in learning Sudanese Arabic, you might enjoy my new blog https://wordpress.com/view/sudanesearabicdocumentariestranscriptionsandtranslations.wordpress.com

 

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