Montrealer Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque first arrived in Sudan in 2006, to work for the United Nations radio service there, and she soon realized there was much more to this troubled North African country than what she'd been seeing for years on the nightly news.
Sudan was the site of a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005 and resulted in more than 2 million deaths.
"At first, I was completely excited, and then I was terrified," Sicotte-Lévesque said.
But she soon discovered that Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, was actually quite a safe city, and she began meeting a lot of locals who changed her views of the country.
"I saw all these young people who were so vibrant, and I thought I'd like to give these people a voice," Sicotte-Lévesque said.
The result of that epiphany is and#192; jamais, pour toujours, a feature documentary on Sudan and its people that has its world première Thursday at the Rencontres internationales
du documentaire de Montréal. The title in English is The Longest Kiss, a reference to the fact that Khartoum is where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile, a meeting place that has been described as the longest kiss in history. There is a lot of English spoken in the film.
"You don't get that human feeling in the stories that come out of Sudan, and that was my biggest fear making the film - that I wouldn't properly represent these people," Sicotte-Lévesque said in an interview Wednesday morning at the Cinémathèque québécoise.
This is Sicotte-Lévesque's second documentary, following When Silence is Golden, a 2009 film about the citizens of a small town in Ghana and their relationship with a Canadian mining company that's active in the area. She has degrees from Vassar College and the London School of Economics, and has for the past three years lived in New York, working for the United Nations, specializing in reproductive and family issues.
In fact, if she hadn't been scheduled to come to Montreal for the première of and#192; jamais, pour toujours, she'd have been in the Philippines right now taking part in the UN's relief efforts in the region following the recent devastating typhoon.
Her film focuses on six young Sudanese men and women struggling to keep it together in a country that has been traumatized by the lengthy civil war and is now grappling
with the aftermath of the 2011 referendum that resulted in the southern Sudan region separating to form its own country.
They are a diverse group. One woman has a Christian father and a Muslim mother. Another is a boy from the south who is adopted by a family from the north. One woman is a nurse with a strong independent spirit who wears a niqab. Then there's an extraordinary woman who was sent from Sudan to Cuba as a child to be educated, spent time later in Canada, and then moved back to her homeland and became a member of Parliament.
Watching the movie in Quebec right now, it's impossible not to see echoes of our own debate surrounding the Parti Québécois's charter of Quebec values. There is discussion in the film of how a smart, independent woman can wear a niqab and of the notion of a government dictating how people practise religion.
"There's a danger of imposing your values and beliefs on people," Sicotte-Lévesque said. "You have to respect other people's values. The more you impose your beliefs, the more extremism you have."
and#192; jamais, pour toujours plays Excentris Thursday at 6 p.m. and at Cinéma du Parc Monday at 8 p.m. It opens in theatres Nov. 29.