Talking About Trees (4 stars)

Talking About Trees

Gentle, observational documentary about a group of filmmakers bringing cinemagoing back to Sudan

In Jafar Panahi's 2011 documentary This Is Not a Film, he and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb joke about producing a 'behind-the-scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films.' It's all Panahi can do to work around the strict confines of his government's ban on his filmmaking.

Suhaib Gasmelbari's Talking About Trees, then, is a behind-the-scenes of Sudanese filmmakers not making films. While not explicitly banned from the practice, since the military coup of 1989 the documentary's subjects, Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, Altayeb Mahdi and Manar Al Hilo, are effectively prohibited by bureaucracy, lack of industry infrastructure, and a religiously conservative government suspicious of their creative pursuits. And so, no longer able to make films themselves, the four men dedicate themselves to bringing cinema to the people.

Gasmelbari – covertly filming – follows them in their quest to put on a free film screening in an abandoned open-air movie theatre in the city of Omdurman, just outside of Khartoum, where younger generations have never known cinemagoing as a communal experience. Observational, rather than featuring talking heads, Gasmelbari's film still cleverly manages to provide some historical context: such as when two of the men are interviewed on a radio show; or when one is asked to recount the events of his arrest and interrogation decades previously.

There is commonality to be found with another recent release, Patricio Guzmán's The Cordillera of Dreams (premiering at Cannes last year, it's yet to make it to UK screens), which shares its damning critique of the cultural and economic repercussions of oppressive rule. The approach here is gentler, though. Languidly paced, but never uninteresting, the film demonstrates the tender brotherhood that exists between four old friends who shave and massage one another, and stay up nattering in the dead of night. Through the sadness and frustration, their sense of humour never wavers. Nor does the underlying certainty that what they do matters.

Limited release from Fri 31 Jan.

Talking About Trees

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • France / Sudan / Chad / Germany / Qatar
  • 1h 30min
  • Directed by: Suhaib Gasmelbari

A film about Sudanese filmmakers working around the near-impossibility of making actual films in present-day Sudan. Observational rather than featuring talking heads, languidly paced but never uninteresting, it’s a portrait of the brotherhood between four men and their enduring sense of humour and belief that what they do…