NuNu Deng and the Pangea Under the Stars Film Festival
By Liam Klenk
NuNu Deng is the Founder and executive director of the inaugural Pangea Under The Stars Film Festival: Juba in South Sudan. It is a festival in the making. Presently, the first edition is set to open in the city of Juba in South Sudan in October 2021. The arts, the magical realm of movies, as an avenue for healing, dreaming, and societal transformation.
NuNu Deng was born in Khartoum, The Sudan. She grew up in the American Midwest, on the Cote d’Ivoire, and in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
From 1998 to 2000, NuNu briefly studied Theater Management at The Theatre School at Chicago’s DePaul University.
In our interview, NuNu tells us about what sparked her interest in founding the Pangea Under The Stars Film Festival. And she elaborates on what developed after the initial spark…
In 2018, I worked with a production in LA. At that point, I was a bit burned out and overwhelmed.
Things were set into motion because of my being stressed with the people I was working with.
There were a few short days in which my accumulated weariness and frustration led me to wonder what I was going to do.
My dad called me from South Sudan, and said, “Why don’t you come and spend a little time here?”
Although extremely excited, one of my immediate concerns was: “But, what am I going to do there in my personal time? There isn’t even a public library to check books out. WiFi is choppy. So, streaming movies does not work either. Well, I do have my laptop at least. But, what am I going to do the whole time I’m over there?
I texted one of my friends in LA who is in the film industry. He had been to South Sudan. And, I asked him, “Do you know there isn’t a single movie theater in the country?”
There used to be. But, because of the 2nd Civil War, it was inoperable.
When the war ended, the movie theater hadn’t been used in years. It got repurposed and converted into an evangelical church.
Nowadays, a lot of people who want to see movies bootleg Nollywood movies (movies produced by the Nigerian film industry). Or they try streaming them. But, as mentioned earlier, streaming doesn’t work well in South Sudan either. Often, Internet connections are very slow.
There exists a whole generation of people in South Sudan now, who have never even been to a movie theater.
Most people in the country who can afford to get entertainment will just leave every now and then and go to Nairobi, Kigali, or Dubai.
If you’re working with a NGO/diplomatic mission in South Sudan, it’s considered being in a hardship place. This means your spouse and family do not relocate with you. And after a couple of months, you’ll get to leave the country for a few weeks for a break.
But what about the people who actually live in South Sudan and can’t go anywhere?
I had worked on so many fundraisers for all sorts of charities… but here it is: This is what I am interested in.
I am South Sudanese. I want to do my part to help a society which is in need of healing after multiple traumata. There is the need to do something that connects with my culture, my country. And, the simple wish to use my network to do something good.
At first, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to open up movie theaters. But then I thought, “What will we be able to offer them for viewing? How will we be able to do this?
It became a question of logistics. And, building actual movie theaters would require me to be there 24/7.
However, this might be something for the future…
While evaluating all these ideas tumbling through my mind, I began to talk with more and more people about the fact that South Sudan doesn’t even have a movie theater. Or easy access to movies online.
Then, on December 6, 2018, I started talking about my idea for a festival with my friends. On that day, the Pangea Under the Stars Film Festival was born.
Many of my friends and connections responded very enthusiastically to the idea. Soon, a little team began working together on the realization of the festival.
We want to do something very democratic. A festival not focused on the elites, but rather on the majority of people who cannot travel elsewhere to see and do things.
We also want to be very sensitive about the movies we pick. Take care to, in the end, screen movies which are of a rather positive nature. We want to avoid graphically violent content.
Additional activities are also something we have in mind. For example, there are many orphans due to the past conflicts. Our education and wellness consultants will work with the children and do a cinema camp with them during the day.
At a studio, a lovely new colleague introduced me to a company called Park Circus. They hold the non-theatrical exhibition rights to thousands of titles for many studios and have been a tremendous help in curating the films for our festival.
I am greatly impressed by how this company is sensitive to the fact that they are dealing with a public which is generationally traumatized.
“We will keep that in mind to find the right titles,” was a response I genuinely appreciated.
One thing that has been really good about the current global pandemic is that it is easier to communicate with people in the film industry because they aren’t traveling so much.
We do have our projected opening date of the Pangea Under the Stars Film Festival. However, we want to be mindful of the global situation as well. Maybe, we’ll have to wait until 2022/23.
We will monitor the situation. Even if the Covid situation will get better in the Western hemisphere in terms of numbers, it will still remain a risk to move too much between borders and countries. At least for a while. We don’t want to come to South Sudan and potentially spread the virus. Thus, it is very hard to currently commit to a precise date.
I am just overall so excited about the path we are taking.
I remember in the 80s and 90s when we would rent movies. Renting movies was a huge thing. Now, there are people who haven’t even seen The Wizard of Oz. A movie so magical. Certain movies are breathtaking when you see them. They unlock your imagination.
When I used to see certain shows as a child, I felt this magic all the time. But then, when I worked in entertainment myself, knowing how those moments are created took some of the magic away.
I am excited at the thought of people in South Sudan seeing movies that will make them feel joy and wonder
It’s hard to see what’s in front of you when you are going through hard times. But when you see something which opens your horizon – it might be something as simple as a movie – then maybe you’ll start thinking how there is a whole other world out there.
You might start thinking about what is possible. When you are able to sit down for a little while and be a dreamer it unlocks so many things. You realize there is a lot to do beyond your current existence.
We are currently still fundraising. A lot of the infrastructure needed to be able to do the festival how we envision it isn’t readily available where we are going.
But, we are on a good path with a great, enthusiastic team. We will make it happen. And, I am looking forward to keep doing our best to deliver a great experience to the people of South Sudan.