Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary that is screening as part of the 2019 Africa in Motion Festival, is about the film industry in a country where strict censorship laws have ensured that it is all but nonexistent. The documentary chronicles the attempt of four Sudanese filmmakers, collectively referred to as the Sudanese Film Group, as they try to restore some of Sudan’s film culture in the form of free film screenings. Talking About Trees paints a mellow but resilient portrait of these directors, who are unable to live out their passion, but who remain unwaveringly convinced of the ubiquitous power of cinema.
The members of the Sudanese Film Group grew up in a time period when Sudanese cinema seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. Brief and tantalizing glimpses are given into some of the Sudanese films they produced in the 70s and 80s, showcasing lush black and white jungles and poetic visual language. Many of them studied film abroad, hoping to return home and practice their craft. Yet this dream shattered with the 1989 Sudanese coup d’état, after which the national film institution was shut down and many directors had to flee the country or were arrested. As a consequence of the severe governmental suppression, Sudan currently has no more operating cinemas, which the Sudanese Film Group tries to rectify throughout the course of the documentary. The aptly named Revolution Theatre is the focal point of Talking About Trees, a run down open-air theatre that they try to reopen for free screenings, an almost Herculean task in the face of the censorship laws.
Yet, despite the rigid bureaucratic suppression that thedirectors struggle against throughout the film, the spirit of cinema lingers on. At one point, the directors stage an impromptu performance of Sunset Boulevard when their electricity is cut off, and later they project Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times against a house wall, neighborhood kids on plastic chairs watching the film in awe. Much of the documentary is filmed in beautiful wide shots, with the directors framed by the muted browns of the old cinema, a striking reminder of what details the cinematic eye can capture. Heartbreaking are the conversations the directors have about their experiences studying film abroad; it is clear that they feel the loss of so vital a part of their personal and communal identity very deeply.
Talking About Trees explores the connective and transformative power of film, both as a conductor of history and as an expression of creativity, and how the censorship of film is crippling to the collective cultural identity of Sudan and its people. This shared desire for a new Sudanese film culture goes beyond the wish for mere entertainment- it is representative of deep longing for political and cultural freedom. As the Bertolt Brecht poem that the title is taken from goes: “talking about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors”.
[Amelie Voges – she/her – @amelieleav]