A common problem I have had during my time at the Festival over the years is the fact that I can inadvertently find myself having a very brief snooze during early times of each day whilst a film is playing. It’s not always the fault of the films featured – although the Festival’s habit of putting quieter and more minor-key films in the middle slot of their daily schedules, when many of us have been up since at least 6am, does not help – and more the result of my being a constantly tired sack of crap who nonetheless never seems to sleep decently at night. As an unfortunate consequence, that means films like aKasha are unfairly slapped with the caveat/disadvantage that my mind may, despite my best efforts, check out for a few minutes around the middle if I’m not fully engaged/locked in a “well, this is pleasant” response to the events on-screen and underrate them as a result. But in this instance, “minor” and “pleasant” seem very much to be the modes that writer-director hajooj kuka was going for in his debut narrative feature.
See, aKasha is a genial comedy about the Sudanese civil war. Really. Rather than focussing on the wider scope of the conflict, socio-economic effects, the instability of the country or anything like that, kuka instead tells a very off-beat love-triangle story between the glory-chasing revolutionary soldier Adnan (Kamal Ramadan), his long-suffering girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus), and the AK-47 he used to shoot down an enemy drone that he has named Nancy. A combined series of misunderstandings and Adnan himself being kind of a boob lead to him accidentally being labelled a deserter from his regiment and separated from his beloved Nancy, both violently punishable offenses. So, Adnan ends up teaming with the army-dodger who’s partly responsible for getting him into this mess in the first place, Absi (Ganja Chakado), to try and straighten things out.
In the Sudan of aKasha, the civil war is more of an annoying fact of life than a battle for the soul of the country. The war even stops every summer once the rains come because government tanks can’t push forward in the sodden plains, so everyone just takes time off until the weather clears up and the war’s back on. Rather than any anger or fury or heartbreak, what kuka instead displays whenever the fact of war rears its head is more of a resigned exasperation about the whole thing. How the lives of the villagers we follow are mostly unconcerned and unaffected by the goings on every time that a government fighter jet isn’t flying overhead – their ducking down when one does appear rarely carrying any urgency or concern since they’ve lived this arrangement too long to be deeply bothered by it anymore. These are ultimately minor elements of the film, too, the vast bulk of the narrative and briskly-paced events honestly not too far removed from staples of British comedies. Cross-dressing disguises, cases of mistaken identity, animation-enhanced drug trips, nut shots, jeeps getting bogged down due to overcrowding, etc.
There’s something strange about seeing that kind of generic language being transferred to a culture and subject that is theoretically the polar opposite, but it does work. aKasha is an amiable, agreeable watch, sometimes being genuinely funny and occasionally possessing a sweetness in its additional explorations of fragile masculinity in the midst of war. But aKasha is also a very minor work that fails to crescendo, ultimately just sort of stopping in a way that guarantees it won’t linger in my memory for very long. It feels like a noble idea more than a fully-fledged film, in many respects, albeit one with some lovely cinematography by kooka & Giovanni Autran and likeable performances from the cast. Also, this isn’t a problem with the film itself but more the localisation: much of the film’s dialogue goes unsubtitled or has been heavily simplified in the subtitling and I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed a certain chunk of the film due to that, especially since it ends with a character performing a song they wrote about another character and the refusal to translate means the tone or message of that song is lost to non-Arabic speakers.