SUDAN: Exploring the importance of cinema for democracy.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: July 27, 2019

Talking About Trees

Suhaib Gasmelbari

Marie BalducchiMahamat-Saleh HarounMelanie Andernach

France, Germany, Chad, Qatar, Sudan

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 politically tainted. Thus, with the idea that cinema is essential for democracy this documentary provides a novel view, at least for Europe and the Global North.

Talking About Trees, a film by Suhaib Gasmelbari

The four protagonists of this film left their homeland in the ’60s and ’70s to study cinema abroad. Al-Tayeb Mahdi and Manar Al Hilo graduated from the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema in 1977. Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim El Nour studied documentary at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow and Ibrahim Shaddad studied filmmaking in the 1960s at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in East Germany. They were all active filmmakers and the first great achievement of this documentary is that it makes audiences of the Global North aware of the rich African film legacy.

It took one hundred years and five African film directors to finally show that Walter Benjamin was right.

As the film takes its viewers to the precious private archive of Ibrahim Shaddad, the room is dark and illuminated only by the torch attached to the man’s forehead, as if he were about to go digging underground. Indeed, following his torch of light, we discover a true cinephiles’ treasure trove: Arriflex lenses, tapes of film classics such as La Peau Douce by Trufault, 16mm camera, a suitcase full of notes – amongst them, a script for a film, with props, sets, costumes, actors. The film was almost ready to begin shooting when the military coup happened and the project was halted. «It all ended there», says one of the men. It was July 1st, 1989.

Victims of the regime

After the military coup, cinema-going ceased to exist. The four protagonists, who were all in different ways victims of the regime, founded the Sudan Film Group to revive cinema theatres and reintroduce cinema-going into the country. Gasmelbari’s film documents their efforts by applying classical filmmaking techniques, starting with the motive of four male heroes determined to achieve their goal at all costs: be it when they decide to clean up the huge white wall to be the screen in their new cinema, be it when they have to push their rusty van in which they travel around villages and show films on cloth attached to a wall. When the van starts, the man behind shouts to the driver, «Come on, drive! If someone’s in the way, drive him down.»

Talking About Trees, a film by Suhaib Gasmelbari

Carefully arranged shots of the present are skillfully interwoven with the archive material. Thus, the four directors are not only the films’ protagonists, but their films also frame the Talking About Trees narration. In the beginning, in clips from Hunting Party (1964) by Shaddad, we see a stern critique of colonial representation. At the closure, in a repetitive warning to children about the devils awaiting those who walk freely in Africa, Jungle, Drums and Revolution (1974) by Suleiman El Nour, we encounter an ironic criticism of the present condition.

With no end

Through the efforts of the Sudan Film Group, we can observe subtle mechanisms of power that are at work in contemporary Sudan. Their request for permission to open the cinema is not simply rejected. It just has to pass one verification after another, with no end. Hearing that one of the verifying instances confirmed that cinema closure in Sudan was a political decision seems to end their hopes for good. Yet, even if they failed, they seem content. This confirmation indirectly proved their belief in cinema’s democratic potentials. And this, of course, is not just a belief. Similar to Benjamin, the pioneers of African cinema considered the film language, based on images, as more democratic than any other language. Therefore they embraced the film as the most convenient way to reach people, to mobilise them and get them involved in politics.

Through the efforts of the Sudan Film Group we can observe subtle mechanisms of power that are at work in contemporary Sudan.

This documentary brings about a very important insight that to appreciate differences, one should, first of all, know them. It provides an insight into the richness of Africa cinemas, films and filmmakers in an innovative way, as a direct source of knowledge.

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