Winner: Nyandeng (Akuol de Mabior)
The Whickers’ 2020 top annual award of £80,000 goes to the first black African to win the coveted documentary prize for new film and TV directors. Akuol de Mabior is the South Sudanese former model who was born in exile to freedom fighter parents. Her winning film proposal is Nyandeng, a powerful and intimate story about her mother, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, vice president of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
The project was selected from five extraordinary finalists at this year’s edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest following a virtual pitch on Wednesday 10th June in front of a panel of industry judges. The announcement was made at Doc/Fest’s first ever virtual awards ceremony last night, Thursday 11th June. The ceremony, hosted by Whickers’ Artistic Director, Jane Ray, was watched live by an audience joining simultaneously from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. The announcement came after speeches by Alan Whicker’s partner and founding chair of the Awards Committee, Valerie Kleeman, first time Whicker winner Alex Bescoby and festival director Cíntia Gil.
Nyandeng explores the tender relationship between mother and daughter as South Sudan hangs in the balance of a tenuous peace agreement. Nyandeng’s mission is to safeguard her late husband, John Garang’s vision for South Sudan’s people, their country, and their family. With startling honesty, Akuol begins to question what it means to build a country in which a dislocated generation of young Africans attempt to lead meaningful lives.
Mandy Chang, Commissioning Editor of BBC Storyville and a member of the judging panel, said that Nyandeng had not initially been a front runner but she was moved “nearly to tears” by Akuol’s pitch which she described as “Just incredible. I really can see the film very clearly and it’s a film with potentially so much in it. It is rich with all sorts of possibilities and I am totally convinced that she can pull off something quite extraordinary.”
The next morning, after the news of winning had sunk in, Akuol shared these moving words with us: “I’m struggling to express just how much winning the award means. Being ambitious as a woman, as a black person and as an African can feel terrifying and even paralysing in the world as I’ve known it. I don’t often bring it up, but painful questions do flutter up in the back of my mind. Part of what drove me to make this film is recognising something similar in my mother and that she’d grown tired of gendered expectations that demanded she make herself small or even that she disappear. I’ve seen it in young women friends, family and colleagues. I think you may know what I mean. Thank you for this massive vote of confidence and for the work that you’re doing.”
Runnerup: The Hermit of Treig (Lizzie Mackenzie)
The runner-up prize of £15,000 in development funding went to Lizzie MacKenzie for her film The Hermit of Treig, which is a profound and irresistible film about an elderly hermit who has been living in self-imposed isolation in the Highlands of Scotland for 40 years. Lizzie spent seven years winning the trust of her protagonist Ken, who is slowly coming to terms with his increasingly frail body. With his safety and quality of life being challenged by the authorities, Ken remains steadfast and prepares live out his last years in the wilderness he calls home.
Gary Kam, Oscar-Winning Producer and a member of our judging panel said: “This film is not just the story of a unique person, but it also raises the question of being alone, especially in this difficult time of a global pandemic. It explores the meaning of the quality of life and the warm human relationships between different generations with a strong and cinematic visual language.”
First-time filmmaker, Lizzie MacKenzie has a deep understanding of rural isolation from running Corrour Station, the country’s most remote restaurant, 17 miles from the nearest road. When she first heard about Ken she decided to learn how to make films in order to tell his story. Lizzie said of her win: “Everyone’s just really chuffed. There’s been lots of hugs and my mum said she was crying. I decided to start making films to make THIS film and I think when I started filmmaking my family were like ‘it’s another one of her mad ideas, we’re not going to take that seriously’ but now they’re starting to take it seriously!”
The Whickers’ Awards Committee chair, Valerie Kleeman, gave this off the cuff advise to this year’s finalists:
“Just go for it! It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes because you can always make them better afterwards. You just go for it, do as much as you can and you will be great. I’m so thrilled and pleased for both of you, it’s just wonderful and I love both films. I love them all, I mean gosh we’ve had such a year! It has been brilliant and it’s going to be a great ride.”
You can find out more about our winning projects and our finalists here.