A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.
This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.
Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).
Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.
Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.
Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.
The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?
This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.
Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.
Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.
This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.
This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.
A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.