Waves flow in the dark brown current and the water circles in spirals at the surface. This intersection, where the Blue and White Nile meet, is described as the longest kiss in history. The two separate forces become one in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
In her documentary The Longest Kiss, screened at Vassar in March, Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque ’00, an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and human rights activist, follows six young Sudanese on their journey of self-discovery up and down the White Nile. For decades, Sudan has been fraught with political strife between North and South, Christians and Muslims. Sicotte-Lévesque’s documentary offers portraits of youths in Northern Sudan struggling under President Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship as well as youths starting over as citizens of the newly formed nation of South Sudan.
President al-Bashir came to power in 1989 upon ousting former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a military coup. al-Bashir imposed a strict Sharia law that persecuted Christians and other religious minorities— events that led to two civil wars fought for more than 20 years between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a guerrilla military group, and al-Bashir’s government. In 2011, a referendum was held to determine whether South Sudan should secede and 98.83 percent of the population voted for independence.
Sicotte-Lévesque lived in Northern Sudan for four years prior to the secession and she traveled between the North and South during the production of her film.
Sicotte-Lévesque first took an interest in human rights at Vassar when she enrolled in a history class taught by Professor Ismail Rashid, who specializes in resistance and emancipation in contemporary Africa. She spent a semester in Kenya with St. Lawrence University, a trip that exposed her to realities on the ground and the power of media in defining perceptions of Africa. “It changed my life,” she said in a Q&A session held after the on-campus screening introduced by Rashid.
The experience later inspired her international studies thesis on versions of democracy in the media representation of Kenya. After graduation, she pursued a master’s degree in human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science and worked for several not-for-profit organizations before founding Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto-based international media development NGO that empowers journalists to cover human rights stories objectively and effectively.
Sicotte-Lévesque says “the creativity of the Vassar environment” endowed her with the drive to make something out of nothing and to see it to fruition, as writers, artists, and playwrights do with novels, sculptures, and plays.
The Brooklyn-based Sicotte-Lévesque currently works for the United Nations Population Fund and is working on two other documentary film projects.
During the on-campus screening, Sicotte-Lévesque told the audience that, though inter-ethnic tensions remain, the secession has brought political optimism to a fragmented population. “There are South Sudanese who have immigrated to Canada, France, and America and they are choosing to go back to their own country. They feel a responsibility to their people,” she said.
She urged others to hold on to hope for Sudan, too. “Sudan is a difficult subject to talk about,” she said, “but we must maintain a positive attitude. If we don’t, there can be no future.”
—Lanbo Yang ’15