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When going to the cinema becomes a political act

Talking About Trees
Regissør: Suhaib Gasmelbari
(Frankrike, Tyskland, Chad, Qatar og Sudan)

SUDAN: What role can cinema play in democracy building?

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Talking About Trees portrays four year-old filmmakers and their struggle to breathe life into the cinema in Sudan. At the same time, it begs an interesting question: How important is film and cinema to democracy?

Walter Benjamin embraced the cinema from the very beginning and thought it was the most democratic art form. In the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) he claimed that only the well-educated elite benefit from traditional art, however, people from all walks of life can enjoy watching Charlie Chaplin's films. But his thoughts were quickly forgotten, first because films were considered too populist to have democratic relevance; Theodor W. Adorno even mentioned the movie as a threat to democracy. And today, the good old celluloid film has become a format for the elite.

The four heroes of Talking About Trees are fighting to revive the traditional cinema in Sudan, but this fight is just as much a struggle for democracy. During one of the public film screenings they host in the villages, we see this village's residents gathered in the square in front of the makeshift movie screen as they play chess by Charlie Chaplins Modern times (1936). It took almost a hundred years and required five African filmmakers before we finally got proof that Benjamin was probably right. But does it really matter?

A political medium

Different cultures use the media differently. The main thesis in Talking About Trees, by the Sundanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari, is that film is a political medium. This is new to a European audience, but it should come as no surprise that this view is promoted from the African side, from a continent where the celluloid film was political right from the start. Today, the fears, sufferings and longings of the urban masses worldwide are made available through the video, which is thus the most important medium in post-colonial Africa. But this has not always been the case.

In the beginning, these video films were dismissed as "rubbish" because they seemed inferior to the celluloid film, which in Africa was tantamount to politically engaged film the author right from the start. Unlike in the French – or European – movie d'auteur politics and society were very important in the African. And in the United States, filming d'auteur not even existed, the movie was part of the entertainment industry, and the independent film was politically shamed as a result of the sexual harassment behind the doors of main producer Miramax. So, assuming that cinema is crucial to democracy, the documentary offers an original perspective – at least for audiences in Europe and the global north.

In order to appreciate inequality one must first be aware of it.

The film's four protagonists left their homeland of Sudan in the 60 and 70 years to study: Al-Tayeb Mahdi and Manar Al Hilo graduated from the Institute of Cinematographic Higher Studies (HCI) in Cairo in 1977. Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim El Nour studied documentary film at the All-Russian State Cinematographic Institute (VGIK) in Moscow, and Ibrahim Shaddad studied film production at the Babelsberg Konrad Wolf Film University in East Germany. They were all active filmmakers, and one of the documentary's accomplishments is that it draws audiences in the global north to the rich African film tradition.

The director takes viewers into the unique private archive of Ibrahim Shaddad. The room is in the dark, the only light source is Shaddad's headlight, which gives him the feeling that he is leading the excavation of a mine. And as we follow the light, the treasure trove of a true movie lover reveals itself: Arriflex lenses, movie tapes with classics that La Peau Douce by Trufault, 16mm cameras, a suitcase full of notes – among these a movie script with directions to props, scenography, costumes and actors. The film was almost ready to be shot when the military coup hit the country and the project was halted. "Then there was a sudden stop," says one of the guys. This happened 1. July 1989.

The victims of the regime

After the military coup, the cinema was closed down. The four protagonists, all of whom in turn were victims of the regime, founded the Sudan Film Group to breathe life into the cinema again and get the country's inhabitants to move back into the cinema hall.

Gas Melbari uses classic film techniques to document the efforts of the four male heroes. The motif is timeless and universally valid, the heroes must reach their goal, cost whatever it costs: Be it to wash down a large white wall so that it can do as a movie screen in their new cinema, or push the rusty car they running around with when to show film on the piece of clothing they hang on a random wall in the villages they visit. As the car engine finally starts, the man pushing cries to the driver: "Come on, drive! If anyone gets in the way, drive them down! "

Like Walter Benjamin, the pioneers of African cinema believe that the film language is the most democratic language of all.

Carefully placed clips from the present are expertly trimmed with archival material. The four filmmakers are thus not just protagonists Talking About Trees – their own films form the very framework around the documentary's story. Early in the movie we get to see clips from Shaddads Hunting Party (1964), which strongly criticizes colonial oppression. In conclusion, we are served an ironic critique of the contemporary state in a clip from Jungle Drums and Revolution (1974) by El Nour, where a repetitive African warning is addressed to African children – the devils wait for those who freely travel to Africa.

Talking about Trees
Talking about Trees

Through Sudanese Film Groups efforts we see the subtle power mechanisms that govern today's Sudan. Their application for permission to open a movie theater is not rejected; it is processed by one instance after another, it is forwarded and forwarded through the system, without end. When they hear that one of these bodies confirms that the closure of the movie theater in Sudan was a political decision, it seems that all hope is out. And yet, even if they failed, they seemed satisfied: This indirectly confirms their belief in the democratic potential of cinema. And of course, it's not just a "belief": Like Benjamin, the pioneers of African cinema believe that the film language, which is based on pictures, is the most democratic language of all. Therefore, they embraced the film as the simplest, most practical way to reach out to the people, to mobilize them to become politically engaged.

The documentary emphasizes a very important recognition: In order to appreciate inequality one must first have knowledge of it. Innovative promises Talking About Trees showcased the rich cinema tradition, film and filmmakers in Africa, and is a good source of increased knowledge.

The movie is shown on Movies from the South in Oslo in November.
Translated by Vibeke Harper.

Melita Zajc
Zajc is a media writer, researcher and film critic. She lives and works in Slovenia, Italy and Africa.

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