Every now and then a documentary comes along that understands why cinephilia can be a vital part of our psychological makeup, and why it has meaning in our waking hours as well as in our dreams. “Talking About Trees” is such a film, imbued with a generosity of spirit, that gives much-deserved recognition to four older Sudanese filmmakers whose battle to bring cinemagoing back to Sudan is the immediate focus of this superb work. With unfailing artistry, director Suhaib Gasmelbari captures how cinema can be essential and why these men, with their unquenchable passion and respect for one another, deserve to be feted as our godfathers. Several well-deserved awards from the Berlinale’s Panorama section should help seal distribution deals for select documentary circuits.
Within the first five minutes you know there’s something very special about these friends, when one of the periodic blackouts in Khartoum inspires them to re-create a scene from “Sunset Boulevard,” with Ibrahim Shaddad draping his head in a blue scarf and pretending to descend the stairs à la Gloria Swanson. The moment magically transcends camp, and via a playfulness originating from deep love and knowledge, they get to the heart of what it means to live film in your very bones.
Shaddad is a filmmaker, although along with peers Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi and Manar Al-Hilo, they’ve not made a film for some time. That’s because not only has very little cinema come out of Sudan in the last few decades, but there are no working movie theaters in the country. During a radio interview, the question is asked why cinema died in Sudan; the answer of course is politics, and while Gasmelbari doesn’t shy away from placing blame on the dictatorships and their opportunistic use of Islam as a means of control, his documentary is less focused outright on politics and more directed at the determination of these four men to rekindle the experience of cinemagoing in their homeland.
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Each of them studied filmmaking abroad, in Germany, Egypt, and Russia, at an optimistic moment when it seemed that talent and enthusiasm would usher in a golden age for African cineastes. Gasmelbari includes tantalizing clips of some of their films, many in a poor state of preservation, reflecting how they imbibed international influences while searching for their own means of expression. Tragically their directorial careers were cut short, and a few went into exile, but they all returned to Sudan, where they reestablished the Sudanese Film Group to encourage filmmaking and resurrect cinemagoing.
Movie theaters remain in Khartoum, but they’re disused shells or long-abandoned sand-strewn outdoor cinemas without usable seats. The Sudanese Film Group puts on private shows, like a screening of “Modern Times” that never fails to delight, but it’s hoping for something more public, so it contacts owners of former theaters and starts investigating whether it’s possible to bring the Revolution Cinema back to life. Calls are made to equipment suppliers, people in the community are asked about what kind of movie they’d like to see and even whether they’ve ever been to a cinema. Excitement grows, “Django Unchained” is chosen, but endless bureaucratic evasions and Byzantine permit requirements threaten to sink their plans. Meanwhile, as the men joke, at least two more mosques will pop up before they’re able to even install a projector.
The documentary’s title comes from Bertolt Brecht’s 1940 poem “To Those Born Later,” in which he laments the suppression of discussion under dictatorship, and how shifting the discourse to mundane topics painfully draws attention to what can’t be spoken aloud. Gasmelbari knows that trees are not the same as cinema, and that talking about movie making and cinephilia isn’t simply a cover for what can’t be said. Yet because film is the totality of who we are and where we are at any given moment, it testifies to the political state and to freedom’s curtailed bounds. For the men of the Sudanese Film Group, their careers thwarted by military coups, their immense talents untapped, cinephilia has an urgency that goes far beyond shared pleasure: It reflects the wasted opportunities of a nation full of promise and a people hungry for self-expression.
Gasmelbari’s confident visuals (he’s also the DP) neither prettify nor exoticize, although there’s a delightfully unexpected scene in which Shaddad brings a camel into the open-air cinema and poses for a selfie. His shots are honest and quietly beautiful, glorying in capturing these extraordinary men and their ability to persevere through bitterness thanks to the centrality of cinema in their lives, and the spirit of friendship that binds them together. Kudos to him also for tracing a print in Moscow of Suliman Ibrahim’s graduation film, movingly seen at the very end.