Order the summer edition here

With hope for Africa

The Forest Maker
Regissør: Volker Schlöndorff
(Tyskland)

ENVIRONMENT / "It's about changing people's mindset," says Volker Schlöndorff (83) to MODERN TIMES. The veteran German director himself describes his film about agronomist Tony Rinaudo's reconstruction of forests in Africa as propaganda.

"I went to Africa as a pessimist and came back as an optimist," says Volker Schlöndorff. The German director is best known for his feature films from the period in the 60s and 70s called New German Cinema and in particular for Blikktrommen, the film version of Günter Grass' novel which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar for best foreign film the following year.

Now, however, the over 80-year-old filmmaker has made a documentary film. The Forest Maker was shown as the closing film at a newly established film festival on the Greek island of Evia this summer, where MODERN TIMES met him together with a group of Greek and international journalists. The festival was organized as part of the recovery of Evia after the island was hit by very extensive forest fires last year. Since climate change is believed to be a cause of the fires, The Evia Project had climate, environment and sustainability as its overarching theme – and Schlöndorff's recent documentary was a most fitting end to the festival in that respect.

The forester

The film is about the Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo, who goes by the nickname "the forester". For several decades, Rinaudo has worked with the reconstruction of forests and agriculture in Africa through what he calls farmer-managed natural regeneration. His method for recreating forests in drought-stricken areas involves growing existing roots from the soil, instead of planting new trees. This "reforestation" is not least important since the forest areas and the shade they create provide the conditions for farming.

The Forest Maker Director Volker Schlöndorff Germany

Schlöndorff says that the film project started at the end of 2018 when he met Rinaudo in Berlin, right after the agronomist had been in Stockholm and received the so-called alternative Nobel Prize Right Livelyhood Award. "I was struck by his personality and thought he was a good lead character for a film, but also by the simplicity of his method," says the filmmaker. “I assumed he had thousands of disciples around the world practicing and passing this on, but Tony replied that he was mostly alone. We have to do something about that, I said and suggested making a film about him. Six weeks later I met him in Bamako in Mali and got down to business."

Schlöndorff himself jokingly refers to his film as propaganda – knowing that activism is a more precise term. The Forest Maker is recorded over a period of three years and gives an insight into Rinaudo's projects in various countries in the Sahel region, as well as portraying some of the farmers who use this form of forest regeneration. The material has also been processed into shorter videos that can be used to give farmers an introduction to the method.

Tony Rinaudo's method for recreating forests in drought-stricken areas involves growing existing roots from the soil, instead of planting new trees.

Despite what Rinaudo first expressed, Schlöndorff clarifies that the agronomist is not completely alone in his work. “His method is now spreading from farmer to farmer and from village to village. And then there are organizations that bring it from country to country," says the filmmaker.

"It is not primarily about changing agriculture, but about changing people's mindset. The population can create the changes themselves, in contrast to how development aid is usually organised," he says.

Old method

The director clarifies that although Rinaudo discovered that the root system is still alive in dry areas, the method is not something the agronomist personally invented.

“Farmers used to know this. Agriculture under trees was what was practiced in Africa before colonization. But at some point they were told that a good farmer should have a clean piece of land and remove all trees. Then of course the sun causes the soil to dry, the wind blows away much of what is sown, and the rest is washed away when the occasional rain comes. This results in hard soil, which no one believes can become fertile again. But it can, since these little sprouts will eventually grow up. And when you have trees, you have shade," explains Schlöndorff. “I didn't want to overload the film with statistics, but some hard facts are included. In the Republic of Niger alone, six million hectares of land have been developed using Tony's method."

The method is also the same as the photographer Sebastião Salgado uses in his native Brazil in the documentary film The salt of the earth (2014), directed by Wim Wenders – incidentally also one of the central names from New German Cinema.

The Forest Maker
Director Volker Schlöndorff
Germany

Progress

Schlöndorff himself has been involved in projects on the African continent for the past 14 years, especially in connection with film schools. However, he had hardly been to the African countryside before he began work on this film.

According to the filmmaker, a problem in these areas is that the young people do not want to farm and would rather go to the cities. "When they see the parents working hard without being able to feed the family, it is naturally not encouraging. Three things are essential for this to change: education, a minimum of mechanization and electrification," he says, emphasizing that very few in the rural areas have access to electricity. At the same time, he points out that many young people in the big city of Dakar could consider moving to the rural areas if they were given access to land and the opportunity to run fertile agriculture.

“Billions have been pumped into Africa over the past 60 years, but rarely reach the villages. At best, you get a well dug. I could make a completely different film about all the money that has disappeared into corruption – including in the development organizations – but Tony advised me not to spend time on that. Instead, I concentrated on the farmers and how resourceful they actually are. As well as how much could change if more attention was focused on them," says Schlöndorff.

Again, he refers to Rinaudo, who believes that Africa can not only feed itself, but the whole world: "Even if current methods do not work well enough and climate change creates further challenges, there is apparently enough land. It is strange that the development programs do not care more about agriculture and the rural areas, where 70 percent of Africans still live."

The veteran director's stated hope for the continent's future also stems from what he himself has witnessed: "Progress is happening. Some will probably call me naive, but I didn't see any starving children. In the countryside they live simply, but they are able to support themselves. The children have a school to go to, the teacher is there. This is not misery, it is a beginning – and it can move forward.”

avatar photos
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

You may also like