69 years ago, the inaugural issue of Cahiers du cinéma featured as its cover star Sunset Blvd. Suhaib Gasmelbari opens his documentary Talking About Trees along the same lines, as its subjects – a gang of old men comprising the Sudanese Film Club – goof about, recreating that film’s iconic closing scene, with its reference to “those wonderful people out there in the dark”. It is, like that historic magazine cover, a deft introduction to what proves a fascinating and moving study in cinephilia.
The men are Ibrahim, Suleiman, Manar and Altayeb: former filmmakers and longtime friends, working closely together after decades in various states of exile. Their mission is ostensibly simple – to reintroduce public cinema to Sudan – but increasingly frustrated by varying bureaucratic and religious oppressions. To these, the gang frequently react with the amiable humour of those who know their system all too well; it is their infectious personalities, their senses of community and storytelling, that animate much of the film.
For all the appeal generated by these subjects, however, it is Gasmelbari’s considered use of metanarrative and form that push this study into territory that frequently arrests. Talking About Trees is a fascinating insight into fights faced by artists worldwide, as well as an organic reinforcement of what makes these fights so important. Spoken references are made to the early Soviet filmmaking that influenced our subjects at college in the ‘60s and ‘70s; meanwhile Gasmelbari and his editors often work within exactly this framework, cleverly blending visual rhetoric with an observational direct cinema.
Towards the end there is an unexpected cutaway to an old film which, in context, is overwhelming. Humorous throughout, Talking About Trees leans into the archaeology of cinema to make a vital point about the ongoing power of, and need for, cinema.
CAST: Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Ibrahim, Manar Al-Hilo, Altayeb Mahdi
DIRECTOR: Suhaib Gasmelbari
SYNOPSIS: Four older Sudanese filmmakers with passion for film battle to bring cinema-going back to Sudan, not without resistance. Their ‘Sudanese Film Club’ have decided to revive an old cinema, and again draw attention to Sudanese film history.