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Film review: Talking about Trees (DVD and VOD)

15 May 2020

Stephen Brown views a documentary about cinema in Omdurman

A still from the documentary Talking about Trees, which is newly released on DVD (New Wave Films), and available on VOD

A still from the documentary Talking about Trees, which is newly released on DVD (New Wave Films), and available on VOD

WHAT happens to us when our experience of life is narrowly confined to the bounds of our personal lot by threat of violence? This is the question that the debut director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary Talking about Trees (Cert. PG) poses.

The film’s title derives from Bertolt Brecht’s reaction to Nazi tyranny. His poem “To Those Born Later” asks “What kind of times are they, when A talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

For several decades, Sudanese authorities have invoked strict interpretations of Islamic law to maintain control. The army junta ruling the nation does so “in the name of the merciful God”. As well as torture and imprisonment, the government has closed most cinemas. This curtails people’s ability to congregate as an expression of community, and seriously hampers individuals from acquainting themselves with lifestyles other than their own.

The film centres on four elderly men — Ibrahim Shaddad, Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, and Eltayeb Mahdi — dedicated to filmmaking. These forcibly retired directors strive to restore cinema-going through their Sudanese Film Club. Interviewed on radio, they say that cinema was murdered by a traitor and that the Sudanese need resurrection after its death. There’s an unmistakeable indigenous flavour to even the brief glimpses of the films that they made in younger days.

The men have the measure of those in power: “We are smarter, but they are stronger,” exemplifying St Paul’s dictum that when we are weak, then are we strong. One ploy is restoring the Revolution Cinema, a dipadiated open-air venue in Omdurman, near Khartoum. It is surrounded by a potential of eight minarets; so any screening will be interrupted by their respective muezzins’ regular calls to prayer. They clean the screen and auditorium, acquire seating, and, in the absence of expensive new equipment, make do with their own small projector and speakers.

The real problem is obtaining a licence from a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to show the anti-slavery film Django Unchained. Their colleague Hana, having been constantly redirected, finally approaches the Morality Police. She is told that its General has disappeared for two hours to pray. As a result, they improvise movie scenes, pointing an empty camera at the actors. Access to film stock, like cinemas, is no longer possible.

In an effort to embrace the digital age, they employ a mobile phone to begin making a film about water torture which may never be seen. A dignified subversiveness informs these Muslims’ behaviour. It would be interesting to know if the Episcopal Church of Sudan has also found ways of “talking about trees” as a means of offering hope of liberation to an oppressed population.

Here in the UK, we ourselves are currently prevented from entering cinemas. Perhaps some of us prefer watching films through television, DVDs, and streaming services. But what if it remained the case that cinemas were a thing of the past? Talking About Trees forces us to take account of the spiritual and cultural importance of gathering en masse — something that we are badly missing at the moment.

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