Talking About Trees

 

 

 

Four Sudanese men in love with cinema.

 

Talking About Trees

 

On paper this promises to be a wonderful documentary feature, the first to be made by Suhaib Gasmelbari. More than that, it comes to us after receiving enthusiastic reviews and as winner of the top documentary prize at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. How to explain these responses puzzles me because, while I can see so many good reasons for finding the subject matter heart-warming and appealing, the execution of the film struck me as bafflingly lacking in clarity.

 

Gasmelbari has put at the centre of his film four elderly filmmakers from the Sudan who learnt their craft abroad and then went on to make work of distinction at home until the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir turned against filmmaking and closed cinemas. Filmed in 2015 these four - Ibrahim Shadad, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, Manar Al Hilo and Altayeb Mahdi, founders of the Sudanese Film Group - are seen seeking to find a cinema to reopen in order to bring the big screen experience back to the people. There is no doubting the love of these men for cinema, but there is no sense of urgency to give drive to the film and a curious failure to enable us to understand just how they function and what they think they can actually achieve.

 

When the four locate a former open air cinema in Omdurman, they devote themselves to bringing it back to life, yet they are fully aware that screenings would need to be approved by the authorities who can be guaranteed to be unhelpful over this. Despite that, they rent the place and plan one or more free screenings: so where does the money come from, how do they overcome the problems that arise of obtaining a fit screen, a suitable projector and adequate sound and who supplies the films? Posters go up announcing the forthcoming screening of a movie which appears to have been requested and which is described as ‘pure entertainment with plenty of fights’. This work is in fact Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and, since the authorities are known to be concerned about suitability and moral content, I am left asking if any title chosen could have been more provocative and more likely to lead to closure of the project at the outset.

 

The film’s unexpected title is explained by the fact that it is a quote from Brecht and it involves the notion that indulging in talk about light subjects can lead to being silent about deeply serious ones. In that context it should be acknowledged that this film does touch on the injustices of the regime even if cinema is its main concern. In this connection Talking about Trees does include some clips of past work by the featured filmmakers, but it concentrates principally on this recent endeavour. That being so, this is a work that may well appeal to those who loved The Cinema Travellers, that 2016 documentary about two touring picture companies promoting cinema in rural India. At the time I found that piece too shapeless to justify fully the acclaim that it had received, but when compared to Talking about Trees it feels like a masterpiece. However, it would be wrong not to stress again that this new work has many admirers so, although I was surprised and regretful over its inability to capture me, I must assume that there will be many who will relish this film.

  

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring: Ibrahim Shadad, Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, Altayeb Mahdi.

                                                                                                                

Dir Suhaib Gasmelbari, Pro Marie Balducchi, Screenplay Suhaib Gasmelbari, Ph Suhaib Gasmelbari, Ed Nelly Quettier and Gladys Jojou.

 

AGAT Films & Cie/Goi-Goi Productions/Vidéo de Poche/Doha Film Institute/the Sudanese Film Group (SFG)-New Wave Films.
93 mins. France/Sudan/Germany/Chad/Qatar/The Netherlands/Lebanon/United Arab Emirates/Italy. 2019. Rel: 31 January 2020. Cert. PG.