Volker Schlöndorff – Full of hope for Africa

ENVIRONMENT / «It's about changing mindsets», says Volker Schlöndorff. Jokingly, the German veteran director refers to his new documentary on agronomist Tony Rinaudo's reforestation projects 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 fiction features from the period in the sixties and the seventies called New German Cinema and in particular for The Tin Drum, the adaption of Günter Grass’s novel which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the following year.

The 83-year-old filmmaker’s newest film, however, is a documentary. The Forest Maker was screened as the closing film of the first edition of a film festival at the Greek island of Evia this summer, where Modern Times Review met him together with a group of Greek and international journalists. The event, called The Evia Project, was organised as part of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Evia after the previous summer’s devastating wild fires at the island. Since climate change is believed to be among the causes of the fires, The Evia Project had Green Cinema, climate, environment and sustainability as its overarching themes – with Schlöndorff’s documentary as a most fitting closure of the festival.

Forest Maker Volker Schlöndorff
The Forest Maker, a film by Volker Schlöndorff

Making forests

The film is about the Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo, whose nickname «the forest maker» also serves as the doc’s title. 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 trees and the shade they provide create conditions needed for farming.

Schlöndorff explains that the film project started at the end of 2018, when he met Rinaudo in Berlin, right after the agronomist had been in Stockholm to receive the so-called alternative Nobel Prize, the Right Livelyhood Award. «I was struck by his personality and thought he would be a good protagonist for a film, but also by the simplicity of his method», says the filmmaker. «I assumed that he had thousands of disciples around the world who practice and teach this method, but Tony replied that he was mostly alone. This has to change, I said, and suggested to make a film about him. Six weeks later I met him in Bamako, Mali, and we started.»

Schlöndorff jokingly calls his film «propaganda» – fully aware that activism is a more precise term. The Forest Maker was shot over a period of three years and gives insight into Rinaudo’s projects in various countries in the Sahel region, as well as portraying some of the farmers who use his method of reforestation. Parts of the material have also been edited into shorter films that can be used as instructional videos for farmers.

Despite what Rinaudo claimed at their first encounter, Schlöndorff underlines that the agronomist is not completely alone in his work. «He’s not followed by a lot of people, but his method is spreading from one farmer to another, from one village to another. And then there are NGOs who take it from one country to another», the filmmaker says.

«It’s not about changing agriculture. It’s about changing mindsets», he continues, stressing that the people in these countries can create the necessary changes themselves – in contrast to how development aid tends to be arranged.

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

Old method

The director points out that although Rinaudo has discovered that the root systems in dry areas such as these are still alive, the method is not invented by the agronomist.

«Farmers used to know this. Agriculture under trees was what was practised in Africa before the colonisation. But at some point, they were told that a good farmer should have a clean field and remove all the trees before planting. Of course, with the sunshine on the ground, everything dries up, and when there’s no shadow, the wind comes and blows the seeds away. And then the occasional rain comes and washes away what’s left. As a result, you have hard soil, which you wouldn’t think can be restored. But even that can be restored because there are these little sprouts that come up eventually. And once you have trees, you have shadow», Schlöndorff explains. «I didn’t want to burden with statistics, but some hard facts are included in the film. In the Republic of Niger alone, six million hectares of land have been restored through Tony’s method.»

He confirms that the method is the same as the photographer Sebastião Salgado uses in his native Brazil in the documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014), (co-)directed by Wim Wenders – also one of the central names of New German Cinema.

Forest Maker Volker Schlöndorff
The Forest Maker, a film by Volker Schlöndorff

Hopeful beginnings

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

According to the filmmaker, a problem in these areas is that young people do not want to become farmers and would rather move to the cities. «When they see their parents working hard without being able to feed the family, that’s, of course, not encouraging. Three things are essential for this to change: education, a minimum of mechanisation and electrification», he says, emphasising that very few in the rural areas have access to electricity. On the other hand, he points out that many young people in the city of Dakar expresses that they would consider moving to the rural areas if given access to land and the opportunity to develop a different kind of agriculture.

«Billions have been pumped into Africa over the past 60 years, but it rarely reaches the villages. At best, they drill a well. I could make a completely different film about all the money that has vanished to politicians and also to development organisations, but Tony advised me not to waste time on that. Instead, I focused on the life of the farmers and how resourceful they are – and how much that could change if more attention was put on their work», Schlöndorff says.

Again, he refers to Rinaudo, who believes that Africa can not only feed itself, but the whole world: «Even if current methods don’t work well enough and climate change creates further challenges, there seems to be enough land. It’s strange that the development programs don’t care much about agriculture and the rural areas, where 70 percent of the Africans still live.»

The veteran director’s hope for the continent’s future also stems from what he has witnessed himself: «There is progress. Some will probably say that I’m blind, but I didn’t see any starving children. In the countryside, they live modest lives, but they’re able to support themselves. The children have a school to go to, and the teacher is there. This is not misery. It is a beginning – and it can spread elsewhere.»

Featured Image: Thessaloniki Film Festival/The Evia Project

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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