Talking About Trees screens as part of the Create strand at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival
I can say without hesitation that my film Talking about Trees was born from an epic yet real image, which happened right in front of me.
It was the first time that I participated with the four friends behind the Sudanese Film Club – Ibrahim, Manar, Suleiman and Altayeb – in a screening in a village. After they set up the canvas screen and the show started, sandy wind began to blow, moving the screen left and right. Two of them (Manar and Ibrahim) quickly got up and sat on each side of the screen to anchor it down by tying both corners to their chairs. No one left despite the wind, and the audience continued to be engaged by the film.
As the wind strengthened, the screen blew up and deflated like the sails of a small boat. Sometimes the picture would go out of frame, and then come back. I was watching the faces of both men as they held the screen while laughing nervously like sailors in a storm. It was then that I felt that this casual trip to this village near Khartoum granted me one of my most important existential lessons about resistance. It ignited the need to make the film.
The image is not included in the film, just like the many other images that these four cinematographers wanted to accomplish in the past 40 years, but the aggressive political winds in the country stood against them.
When I think of the film, I think of these missing images: the images that aren’t present because they were erased before they became reality. To me the whole idea of my film is to tell what can’t be seen because it was prohibited from being, and my hope is to make it tangible through the four characters and their devotion, their visible bitterness mixed with their witty sense of humour.
Through it, I want to reveal their strong loyalty and love for cinema; this love “realised of desire still desiring”, as the poet René Char once wrote. Over the years that followed this trip, I started to know them much more deeply, and in spite of their different personal stories I came to notice that they share their conscious choice of taking difficult paths. They preferred to pay the price than to sell themselves to any authority. By that they kept their expensive freedom.
They also share an inexhaustible faith in the value of deeds, regardless of how small they appear to others. They are a necessary example in times dominated by the culture of consumption and narcissistic show.
It was clear to me from the beginning that Talking about Trees would not be a historical film about the Sudanese cinema. I have a great degree predilection with what has been accomplished by those four in the past, but also a strong love of their films and their persistence to move and challenge in the present. This is why my choice was to tell the story with the focus on the present.
I wanted the rich past of the characters to be revealed through its remnants in the present and through their own films. As the film speaks about cinema in Sudan, it naturally criticises the political state of the country, where cinema halls were shut down. Some were destroyed or transformed into storage spaces and parking lots for banks. One became the office for the military’s radio station. But I don’t want this film to become a weepie story about the country’s situation or a simplified and belittling presentation of the deep, complex wounds of my homeland. I want the film to be loyal to the characters and their way in handling wounds delicately yet with perseverance.
The shooting of the film began in difficult times, as Sudan is a complex space to create a film that doesn’t go through official channels. It also faced many technical and financial challenges. I’m grateful to Ibrahim, Manar, Suleiman and Altayeb. They were able to transform all the doubts and the extremely difficult moments into times of laughter and a sarcastic resistance to all difficulties.