SUDAN: Exploring the importance of cinema for democracy.
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: July 27, 2019

Talking About Trees portrays four senior film directors in their struggle to revive traditional cinema in Sudan and, at the same time, presents an interesting question about the importance of cinema for democracy.

Walter Benjamin embraced cinema at its very beginning as the most democratic form of art. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he claimed that only educated elite can enjoy traditional art, while anyone can enjoy the films of Charlie Chaplin. His idea was quickly forgotten, at first because cinema was considered too populist to be relevant for democracy, T. W. Adorno even considered it dangerous for democracy. Nowadays, celluloid film is considered elitist. The four heroes of Talking About Trees are struggling to revive traditional cinema in Sudan but this is obviously also a struggle for democracy. In one of the public screenings they organised in a Sudanese village, we see the villagers, gathered in the square, laughing at Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. It took one hundred years and five African film directors to finally show that, most probably, Benjamin was right. But, does it matter?

Political Media

Different cultures use media in different ways. The main theses of this documentary by Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari, that film is political media, is new to European audiences, but it should be of no surprise that it comes from Africa, where celluloid film was political from the start. Today, video films are making public the fears, sufferings, and aspirations of urban masses all over the continent, so these are the most important media of postcolonial Africa. But it was not always like this. If at first, these videos were rejected as «trash», it was because they appeared inferior to celluloid film which started in Africa as politically engaged «film d’auteur». Political engagement was much more important for African than for the French, or European «film d’auteur». It was also much more important than in the US, where cinema was part of the entertainment industry and «film d’auteur» never existed, while its’ counterpart – the independent cinema, with its major producer Miramax deeply involved in sexual harassment – is even directly …

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