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Der Waldmacher / The Forest Maker

Director: Volker Schlöndorff (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Tony Rinaudo is an Austalian agronomist who first went to Western Africa in 1981 and seems rarely to have come back. Through a method called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), he has – at first unsuccessfully, later much more productively, encouraged the planting of trees and building of springs to sustain the local agriculture. This film, by Volker Schlöndorff, director of The Tin Drum and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, is a documentary about Rinaudo’s life and work.

An early scene shows Rinaudo with one of the locals who has recently returned from hospital. The man had a gangrenous leg, but, Rinaudo explains to the camerman, in his culture lameness was frowned upon, so he refused to consider amputation. After some serious discussion with Rinaudo, who explained that if the gangrene spread it would kill him, the man came back, minus a leg but still laughing and in awe of his Australian mentor.

This scene tells you a lot about how the film will run. Schlöndorff takes great pains not to disrespect the African subjects of the film – indeed, he employed several African co-directors, although none of them appears to stray in front of camera the way that Schlöndorff does. And yet for all this respect, there is always the implied assumption that this is a people who are restrained by a culture which doesn’t allow them to make fully rational decisions.

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but my first reaction to the story of Rinaudo coming to fill Africa with trees was to think of Brecht’s Questions from a Worker who Reads: Did he not even have a cook with him? On one level, that is an unfair question. Rinaudo is not Caesar and it appears that the only people he brought with him were his new wife and baby. They lived in a mud hut where 3 more children were born. And yet there is always the implication that he is better than the rest.

Some of Rinaudo’s early attempts to replant the countryside faltered because of financial necessities. The trees that used to be there had been uprooted by colonial agriculture politics, and the saplings which were planted since were taken by jobless and poverty stricken local kids, to sell for firewood. We are told about these problems, but less about how they were solved, which presumably required some backdoor deals.

One of the key ideas that around FMNR is food for work, where local villagers are fed if they can help build an agricultural infrastructure for the next generation. It sounds like a tremendous project, but someone needs to finance and organise it. You get the feeling that there’s an army of NGOs, volunteers or possible soldiers who have been drafted in to implement the policy, but the film’s focus on just one man gives us little enlightenment.

This is a film which tries its hardest to be unpolitical, even though both the causes and solutions of the devastation that it records are highly political. This is not to say that any improvements to the lives of millions are unwanted because somewhere down the line there must be some link to the industrial military complex – at some level, you take your aid where you can find it. But the idea that all this has been implemented by a single White Saviour just feels implausible.

Maybe I should have sat back and enjoyed the scenery and the interest that Schlöndorff clearly showed for the people living in Africa, though even this felt a little like a nature documentary with Rinaudo as the Great White Hunter who has won the respect of the local population. It’s probably mainly down to my lack of agricultural knowledge, but large parts of the film (which is not too long) felt a little too much to me like a geography lesson.

Rinaudo is obviously a good man, and seems to be both nice and modest – for example he looks exceedingly embarrassed at attempts to call him the Mother Theresa of Africa (although anyone who’s read Christopher Hitchens’s Hell’s Angel, may not see this comparison as quite so complimentary). I’m sure that his Alternative Nobel Prize is thoroughly deserved, but Schlöndorff’s attempt to make the film all about Rinaudo makes it all slightly problematic.

Maybe I just went into the cinema in the wrong mood. Obviously this is a film about a good man doing good things. The scenes in the African school rooms showing kids who want to improve themselves and move to the big city also contain seeds of hope (intermixed with worry at just who’s going to till the farms next generation). But for whatever reason, it failed to touch me and just left me slightly cold.

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