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FILM REVIEW

‘No Simple Way Home’ – the heart story of South Sudan’s founding mother

‘No Simple Way Home’ – the heart story of South Sudan’s founding mother
Still from 'No Simple Way Home'. Image: Al Jazeera / Supplied

Akuol de Mabior’s ‘No Simple Way Home’ explores the interconnected histories of South Sudan and her own political family.

In October 2022, Al Jazeera featured four powerful female stories on Witness, the channel’s documentary series platform. In each film, women are centred and their voices celebrated as they work within their communities. 

“We are incredibly proud to showcase these independently produced documentaries from Armenia, Ukraine, South Sudan and Iraq with global audiences… It’s an honour to work with these filmmakers and we are grateful to the courageous women featured in these films who share their lives on the frontlines of politics, conflict and war,” said Fiona Lawson-Baker, executive producer of Witness, Al Jazeera English

One of these four documentaries was Akuol de Mabior’s No Simple Way Home, which poignantly details the interlaced reality of South Sudan’s political arena in the lives of its citizens from the perspective of one of the country’s most prominent families. 

The film follows Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, vice-president of South Sudan, through the eyes – and lens – of her daughter Akuol, a filmmaker, model and women’s rights activist. Though De Mabior is currently in office, the story begins years ago, deeply intertwined with the history of the country. 

For more than 20 years, De Mabior’s father, John Garang de Mabior, led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Africa’s longest-running civil war, fighting for a “New Sudan”, free from authoritarian rule in the north. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed and he was appointed as first vice-president of Sudan. Three weeks later, he was killed in a helicopter crash. In De Mabior’s narration, she notes that her father fought for freedom for 21 years, but only served in office for 21 days. 

Today, John Garang de Mabior is known as the father of South Sudan and his wife Rebecca has taken up his dream as her own. 

“In our culture we say, if you kill the lion, you see what the lioness will do,” she proclaimed at his funeral.

epa02556848 A South Sudanese woman holds pictures of late politican and rebel leader John Garang de Mabior (R) and of First Vice President of Sudan and President of the Government of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit (L) celebrates in Juba 30 January 2011 after hearing the preliminary result of the recent independence referendum. Just short of 99 per cent of Southern Sudanese have voted to secede from the north and form an independent state, according to preliminary results released 30 January. EPA/PHILIP DHIL

A South Sudanese woman holds pictures of late politican and rebel leader John Garang de Mabior (R) and of First Vice President of Sudan and President of the Government of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit (L) celebrates in Juba 30 January 2011 after hearing the preliminary result of the recent independence referendum. Just short of 99 per cent of Southern Sudanese have voted to secede from the north and form an independent state, according to preliminary results released at the time. EPA/PHILIP DHIL

epa02556874 A South Sudanese woman holds a picture of late politican and rebel leader John Garang de Mabior (L) in Juba 30 January 2011 after hearing the preliminary result of the recent independence referendum. Just short of 99 per cent of Southern Sudanese have voted to secede from the north and form an independent state, according to preliminary results released 30 January. EPA/PHILIP DHIL

A South Sudanese woman holds a picture of late politican and rebel leader John Garang de Mabior (L) in Juba 30 January 2011 after hearing the preliminary result of the recent independence referendum. EPA/PHILIP DHIL

“In South Sudan, my father’s image surrounds us. We imagine and remember different versions of him, transform him into the hero we can’t be. The day he died is now Martyr’s Day. He is our founding father, our departed father of the liberation struggle. What about our mother who was here?” De Mabior narrates.

With No Simple Way Home, De Mabior has taken up the mantle of documenting her family history, passed on from her mother who has meticulously archived photographs of her and her husband’s lives.

The film is told through a series of interviews, or rather, a tradition of treasured morning conversations that De Mabior has with her mother, and decided to film. These conversations offer glimpses into Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior’s political career, but also into her role as a mother, both to her children and to a nation. 

Through these filmed mornings, Rebecca remembers her marriage (she is shocked at her daughter asking why she never remarried – to her, there is no one for her other than John), ponders the state of her country and considers the role of women in the building of South Sudan. 

“Because I was part of the struggle, I wanted to be also a part of the nation building,” Rebecca tells De Mabior.

Still from 'No Simple Way Home'. Image: Al Jazeera / Supplied

Still from ‘No Simple Way Home’. Image: Al Jazeera / Supplied

As Rebecca goes about her day, Akuol’s sister, Nyankuir, stays close, presented as the future of female leadership. 

No Simple Way Home is intimate and personal as De Mabior captures how the story of her family is interconnected with the story of her country, and how these shared histories have shaped not only her own life but all of her compatriots as well. 

“The film is about family, first of all, and about country, and our struggle to reconcile the political and the personal coming from a political family,” De Mabior told France 24

Through both news footage and interviews by De Mabior, she has cracked open the deeply private moments of a family, revealing how they cannot be told in isolation from the telling of South Sudan’s past. “My family’s story is inseparable from the story of my country,” De Mabior says in the opening lines of the film.

And yet, it is never invasive. Rather, De Mabior leans into this interconnectedness, acknowledging that just as she lost a father, her country did also. News clips show people wailing over John Garang de Mabior’s coffin, grieving alongside his biological family. As Rebecca steps into her role as vice-president, her daughters sit in the audience as she makes her first speech, noting a moment that is as important for the country as it is to their family. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24: Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, Vice President of South Sudan addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 24, 2021 in New York City. More than 100 heads of state or government are attending the session in person, although the size of delegations are smaller due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by John Angelillo - Pool/Getty Images)

Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, Vice President of South Sudan addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 24, 2021 in New York City. Image:  John Angelillo – Pool/Getty Images

The film is full of hope, told through stories of strong and powerful women who carry nations on their backs, but there is a weight that hangs over it as well. In reality, the country is still bearing the wounds of poverty, violence and conflict, and it is often women who bear the brunt of it.

“In Witness, we highlight immersive storytelling that lends depth and complexity to news headlines,” Lawson-Baker said, and this remark, although made back in October, is as poignant then as it is today. 

At the time of writing in December 2022, the BBC reported that renewed fighting in South Sudan has displaced 40,000 people from their homes, with the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs saying that threats of violence continue to hamper urgently needed humanitarian response.

“Fighting has been reported in the state since mid-November – reportedly involving the national army and the Maiwut opposition forces,” Nichola Mandil reported for BBC News. 

A few weeks before, on 28 November 2022, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said it had reasonable grounds to believe a county commissioner had overseen systematic gang rapes as “part of a well-planned scorched-earth offensive against civilians in an area considered loyal to the opposition”. 

“Yes, we have freedom, but can people eat freedom?” Rebecca asks towards the end of the film. She does not answer her question, she does not need to; her heartache is written across her face.

“It looks like there is no peace on the other side of freedom, and home is not a place of rest,” De Mabior says in the closing lines of the film. 

“I still don’t know what it means to be South Sudanese – I do know that the promise of liberation and independence is not the reality of liberation and independence.” DM/ML

Also featured by Al Jazeera’s Witness was ROT54: Armenia’s Forgotten Space Giant directed by Marta Miskaryan, War Bound: Onboard Ukraine’s Evacuation Train directed by Adriana Cardoso and Guillem Valle, and Baghdad on Fire directed by Karrar Azzawi. All films can be viewed on the Al Jazeera website, DSTV channel 406 or on YouTube.

In case you missed it, also read ‘Lakutshon’ Ilanga’: A tribute to Africa, mothers and everyday heroes

‘Lakutshon’ Ilanga’: A tribute to Africa, mothers and everyday heroes

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