Director: Suhaib Gasmelbari (France, Sudan, Chad, Germany, Qatar, UAE). Year of Release: 2019
Ibrahim Shaddad, Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi and Manar Al-Hilo are all film makers, now in their sixties, who live in Omdourman, not far from Khartoum. They all studied film abroad – Mahdi and Al-Hilo in Egypt, Ibrahim in Moscow and Shaddad in the DDR. Those last two may give you the hint you need that as well as being film makers, they are Communists and activists.
In 1989, the four set up the Sudan Film Group. Around the same time, there was a military coup in Sudan, which increased repression and limited their abilities to produce culture for their fellow villagers. Since then they’ve attempted to organise film showing in Omdourman and beyond. We see footage of them showing Modern Times in a local village. The audience isn’t huge, but they view the fact that they can show it at all as a success.
The Sudan Film Group’s great plan is to open a cinema, called “Revolution” in an abandoned outdoor theatre in Omdourman. They contact contractors about film equipment and screens. One promises them a projector but says that a screen may prove to be more difficult. So they whitewash one of the 13-metres high outside walls. They ask the local kids playing football outside which film they’d like to see.
Their experiences with state authorities are just as difficult. It’s not that anyone actually denies them the right to open a cinema. Instead they are pushed from pillar to post in an endless attempt to find the right section of the bureaucracy able and willing to grant them a license. They joke that even if they get permission, all the local mosques now have loud speakers for the call to prayers. They laughingly anticipate a romantic scene being interrupted by a loud shout of “Allahu Akbar!”
State repression is not the only problem standing in the way of a functioning cinema. There are also the regular power cuts. At one point, everything goes dark. One of them is informed that they are number 175 of a list to restore their electricity. When nothing happens for a while, they joke that now they’ve probably fallen down to number 200.
For a lot of the film, not a great deal happens. The old friends sit around, chatting, reading old letters and reminiscing about old films, as well as times spent together and in jail under torture. This personal experience of repression may be what makes them keep on fighting. Sudan is not just a country of repressive dictators, but of continued resistance, of the people rising to change the conditions under which they are forced to live.
In a Q&A afterwards, director Suhaib Gasmelbari quoted Roland Barthes on Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t catch the exact quote, but it’s something about Chaplin’s films always containing the germ of revolt. It’s not that they necessarily depict people rebelling against the system, but they do embody a period when rebellion is in the air, when the old conditions can no longer hold.
So it was with Talking About Trees, which was released in 2019, just as Sudanese people were starting to take to the streets against the old régime. In April, the old dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed. As a Transitional Military Council tried to establish itself, protests continued. The fight between the streets and the régime continues in Sudan until today.
None of this unrest is shown in the film, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see how much was anticipated. This puts the apparent rambling of four elderly men in a quite different context. It is not just a group of old nostalgists looking back on different, better, times. They are also looking to a future, democratic Sudan and the opposition that was already there in embyro.
The title is taken from a Brecht poem, by the way: “What kind of times are these, when To talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors?” This is, at surface, a lament against the attack on democratic rights being imposed in Nazi Germany – the poem was written at the end of the 1930s.
But it is not a pessimistic poem. Its title is “To Those Born After” and goes on to state that “You who will come to the surface From the flood that’s overwhelmed us and drowned us all Must think, when you speak of our weakness in times of darkness That you’ve not had to face.” Just as Brecht’s poem is a call to carry on the fight, Talking About Trees is equally a film showing that mere existence is resistance.
Towards the end, one of the film makers notes that “We are smarter but they are stronger.” This is an acknowledgement that some victories are impossible under the current balance of forces. And yet, this balance can change. For this reason, it is also a film of hope. It can be slow in parts, and may not take all its audience with it, but for those who keep with it to the (in this case, unsuccessful) end, it is by no means a wasted journey.