Biweekly Binge: Talking About Trees - Truth and Cinema
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Talking About Trees, streaming on MUBI
In the distance, we hear Alka Yagnik's voice from Koyla, going 'Dekha tujhe to'. The city is Omdurman, Sudan. The first two lines of the song seem reserved for the love of cinema. Suhaib Gasmelbari's Talking About Trees is a documentary about four Sudanese directors trying to bring cinema back to the people of their country, under dictatorship, censorship, and a fascistic bureaucracy. They are the Sudanese Film Group, a practically defunct club, on life support like the rest of the arts in Sudan. The filmmakers are Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Ibrahim, Manar Al Hilo, and Altayeb Mahdi.
Talking About Trees never betrays that it is a documentary; it works like a missive expressing profound sadness over the stifling of expression in art, mainly cinema. It is informed by real events in Sudan that happened to real filmmakers playing themselves, but it also portends a dystopia that is not too far away in countries plunging into fascism and censorship today, one piece of work at a time. A future where something as innocuous as talking about trees will be deemed a criminal act (inspired by a Bertolt Brecht poem).
Gasmelbari draws an intricate portrayal of intimacy at two different levels. One is the intimate relationship with cinema. How it is life itself for these four filmmakers, cinephiles first. In a heartbreaking scene, Suleiman calls his film school in Russia and asks about the film he made as a student, the copy of which he has lost. We hear only his end of the conversation and he communicates in the Russian still left in him, but the film is now beyond his reach. This film is called Africa, Jungle, Drum and Revolution. It's the kind of title that makes an adage like 'What's in a name?' null and void.
Along with this, we also see footage of films these men have made, mostly in black and white. A man faces a gun, runs away, and is shot at the last moment as he climbs up a slope. In another formal subversion, we see scenes from Ibrahim Shaddad's films, recounting his experiences in prison post the coup in Sudan. Ibrahim looks the same as he does in the film's present timeline, therefore it is difficult to say if this is film footage or just Ibrahim in a throng of masochism, recreating moments from his past in present day Sudan, that's only taken a turn for the worse. One of them elaborates in a radio show how cinema did not die a natural death. It was killed. The four filmmakers try to organise one show in a dilapidated theatre to revive that cinema magic, to see in others' eyes the same light that shines bright when they talk of Truffaut or Cecil B Demille. Or the excitement in kids' voices when they mention Avengers and Salman Khan.
The other level of intimacy is between the four filmmakers. Cinema is always on their mind, either as part of the flux in reviving their club's activities or by them recalling their respective personal histories, the silent era (Modern Times, a contextual favourite) or their days of studying cinema as young men with dreams in the horizon. The good days, such as when one of their films won at a festival, and the many bad days, of the coup, being incarcerated for their communist leanings, and prison time in Sudan.
Almost like a metaphor, there is no electricity in the night, so the only way for them to pass time is to revel in nostalgia and mull an uncertain future. One washes the other's legs, another trims his older friend's beard, they celebrate birthdays blowing candles in the middle of a power cut. It's not just the fact that they are under a dictatorship, where election is a rigged formality, but also that they are men past a certain age, their mortality looking down upon them as they ponder if they would be able to bring to the city of Omdurman at least one community experience of watching a film.
It's not clear if it is Gasmelbari's sleight of hand or just that Ibrahim Shaddad is a naturally playful comic but even if others feel a tinge of the melancholy of their situation - the inability to not just practice but also consume art — he is there making jokes and seeing only the funny side of the fascist regime they are all under. Like when they are told to inform the Intelligence Service about their plans to screen a film or when he is giving his thoughts on the appropriate time for their screening, as there are several mosques around the chosen location with minute differences in their prayer schedule. His antics are a far cry from his films — silent, agonising and autobiographical — while he loiters around taking selfies.
They scout locations like they would for a film, but all they are trying to zero in on is a venue for screening. A gentleman says that an old, decrepit theatre will be turned into a wedding hall with shops and rooms attached, the long arm of capitalism coming for them at the worst of times. Again, they laugh it off and carry on. They proudly proclaim that their effort must be a heroic act, without sponsors or government aid. The confidence — not to mention the humour and lightness — is infectious, it imparts wisdom and inspires optimism in these troubled times the world over. So much that the final quote seems unnecessary: "We are the best optimists because our hope was refined by the toughest kind of despair." What could be better than cinema to reinforce every positive disposition - hope, desire, freedom, justice. Like Manar says, “They always think a film is hiding something," which is why the government wants it far away from the people. Truth and cinema. It's never one or the other, cinema is truth.
(Talking About Trees is streaming on MUBI)