×

Berlin Film Review: ‘Talking About Trees’

With unfailing artistry, Suhaib Gasmelbari brings much-deserved attention to four Sudanese filmmakers whose unquenchable passion for cinema withstands political repression.

Director:
Suhaib Gasmelbari
With:
Ibrahim Shaddad, Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9658178/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Berlin Film Review: 'Talking About Trees'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente), Feb. 11, 2019. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — France-Sudan-Germany-Chad-Qatar) An AFAT Films & Cie, GOÏ GOÏ Prods., MADE IN GERMANY Filmproduktion, Vidéo de Poche, Doha Film Fund prod., in association with the Sudanese Film Group. (Int'l sales: Wide House, Paris.) Producer: Marie Balducchi.

Crew: Director, writer: Suhaib Gasmelbari. Camera (color): Gasmelbari. Editors: Nelly Quettier, Gladys Joujou.

With: Ibrahim Shaddad, Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb MahdiManar Al-Hilo, Hana Abdelrahman Suliman. (Arabic, English, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Film Comment Magazine Goes on Hiatus

    Film Comment Magazine to Go on Hiatus as Film at Lincoln Center Lays Off Half of Staff

    Many companies are being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Film at Lincoln Center is the latest organization to have to lay off employees and pause some of their operations. On Friday, executive director Lesli Klainberg released a memo announcing that the center had to furlough or lay off about half of its [...]

  • "Birds of Prey" egg sandwich

    'Birds of Prey' Actor Bruno Oliver Recreates Harley Quinn's Famous Sandwich

    When actor Bruno Oliver booked the role of short order cook Sal in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” he had no idea how significant Sal and his breakfast sandwich were to the story. “You couldn’t tell from the audition necessarily and as actors, we always worry about our scenes [...]

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

  • APA Logo

    APA Sets Salary Cuts and Furloughs in Wake of Covid-19 Pandemic

    Following in the steps of several agencies dealing with the coronavirus, APA has informed all offices of upcoming salary cuts along with possible suspensions and furloughs for employees due to the pandemic’s economic effect on the industry. APA board of directors will make the largest financial sacrifice. The move has been made to avoid layoffs [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGA Scramble to Keep Residuals Flowing During Coronavirus Pandemic

    Hollywood’s creative guilds have been working overtime to keep residual checks going out to members during the coronavirus crisis. Even though most of the staff members of the Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America West have been working remotely, the guilds have stepped up efforts to maintain the flow of [...]

  • Hannah Marks, Dylan Sprouse. Hannah Marks,

    How a Bart Simpson T-Shirt Delayed Dylan Sprouse’s Movie ‘Banana Split’

    Long before the release of “Booksmart,” actress Hannah Marks set out to make a movie that would be the female bookend to “Superbad.” She started writing the script eight years ago, at 18, based on a real-life story about how, in high school, she befriended the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Many drafts followed for “Banana [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content