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“Talking About Trees,” Reviewed: The Warmth and Wisdom of Four Elders of Sudanese Cinema

Great movies expand the world of cinema, and the Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary “Talking About Trees” does so in a way that looks daringly ahead while also uniting with a great pre-cinematic tradition. (It screens digitally, from December 2nd to December 6th, in the New York African Film Festival, on the Film at Lincoln Center Web site.) Gasmelbari sticks close to four elderly, involuntarily retired filmmakers in the city of Omdurman, where all of the movie theatres have long been closed for political reasons, as they try to reopen an abandoned, open-air, amphitheatre-like movie house. In the process, he observes their energetic physical engagement with the material aspect of the cinema (past and present), and sees and hears them talk—about the state of things in Sudan now, about their lives in earlier years of persecution and exile, about their experiences working on movies, about their present-day effort and its inevitable confrontation with the nation’s current political powers and religious authorities.

What results is some of the best talk, and some of the most dedicated collaborations, and some of the warmest friendships that I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while. “Talking About Trees” belongs to the exalted category of wisdom literature as it has been transmuted to the realm of secular texts—as in James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” Johann Peter Eckermann’s “Conversations with Goethe,” or Gustav Janouch’s “Conversations with Kafka.” It’s one of the rare chances offered by a movie to allow viewers to spend time with public figures whose wisdom nonetheless hasn’t been inflated by the self-promotional sound of their own voice in the media sphere—and whose experience of life and art has been scarred by their experience of political oppression, to which they attest with the bitter and ironic insight of survivors.

The title of the film arises from the four subjects’ life in art during times of political crisis: it’s a quote, from a poem by Bertolt Brecht, that’s spoken by one of the participants, the filmmaker Manar Al-Hilo, who refers to “times when ‘talking about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors!’ ” as he tucks himself into a cot for a night’s rest on a movie-house roof. Gasmelbari’s film—both in his own directorial practice and in the talk and action of its subjects—does both at the same time: the movie makes clear the horrors that surround the sights and pleasures of daily life, and also shows, through the men’s storytelling, the poetic insight that illuminates and transmits, with an air of graceful equanimity and hearty derision, the personal experience of political horrors.

The quartet—which also includes Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi, and its apparent leader, Ibrahim Shaddad—is part of (or, rather, seems to be what’s left of) the Sudanese Film Group, an organization founded in 1989, and they’re joined by a young female administrator, Hana Abdelrahman Suliman, who helps them with the paperwork and the legwork involved in seeking official permission for the reopening of the theatre and the scheduling of a public screening. The cinema haunts “Talking About Trees” and obsesses its central foursome, from the very start, when the area is experiencing a power outage—they’ve been without electricity for four days and are meeting at night by flashlight, which gives rise to a gleefully burlesqued reënactment of a scene from “Sunset Boulevard,” with Shaddad, his head in a kerchief, filling in for Gloria Swanson. Then Shaddad goes on a radio talk show called “The Front Page” for an episode that its hosts (a woman and a man) call “Sudanese Cinema: The Hero Who Died.” Shaddad apostrophizes: “The sudden death of a hero is the work of a traitor. To find the cause of death, look for the traitor.” It’s a brave political hint to make on the air.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Sudanese cinema was developing an international profile with such films as “Tajouj” and “The Tomb.” In looking ahead to a possible future for Sudanese movies—including by cultivating new audiences, as in scenes where the filmmakers ask the men and boys at a soccer game for recommendations on what to show—the four men also delve into their past, and that of the cinema itself. They exhume, by flashlight, VHS tapes (including “The Night We Never Met” and “The Soft Skin”) and cameras and lenses. As a test run for their public screening, they hold a private showing of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” They find, lurking behind a movie screen, abandoned reels of film, and one of the men addresses a reel with lofty irony, “My dear, a young lover replaced you. Digital technology is the young lover.” (Their screenings, private and public, are via DVD projection.) Shaddad finds his notebooks from his years of study in Germany, in the early nineteen-sixties, and the complete dossier—with script, casting notes, location scouting, and photographs—for a film called “Crocodile” that he was ready to shoot, decades ago, until the military coup of 1989 put an end to it.

Soon after the coup, Shaddad was arrested by the new regime—a tale that he discusses with his friends in the film, in great and awful practical detail. All the more remarkably, Shaddad, even now, transforms that experience cinematically: “Talking About Trees” features a strange sequence in which Shaddad, alone in an old and abandoned bathroom, lies on the floor and photographs its fixtures and surfaces, and that bathroom later becomes the setting for a film about arrest, fear, and torture, called “Rat,” that he shoots, alone, on his cell phone, with Al-Hilo as its one and only actor—a shoot that gives rise to Shaddad’s terrifying insights on that film’s subject.

The portrait of this nucleus of the Sudanese cinema is also an explicit vision—as seen in news reports, live, that participants watch—of the sham election of 2015 (Omar al-Bashir was proudly reëlected with 94.5 per cent of the vote and then boasted of the election’s “integrity” and “transparency”), and also of the city itself. Gasmelbari made the movie clandestinely, and he transformed his discretion into an aesthetic: the movie has relatively few scenes from street level but many views of the city as seen from above, including from the roof and the deck of the movie theatre. In these wide-embracing and far-seeing images, it’s as if the entire city were inhabited by the spirit of the cinema.

What do you think?

Written by Richard Brody

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