berlinale dispatch: phantoms of cinema past

First published on February 13, 2019 as part of the 2019 Berlinale Talent Press workshop.

“There’s no space for liberty,” says filmmaker Suhaib Gasmelbari about the state of contemporary Sudanese cinema, as we chat over a cup of coffee on the fifth day of the Berlinale. “There’s a just a phantom of liberty. I want to make films in a country where the minister knows I hate him, but he still can’t stop me.”

It is an unfortunate reality that is illustrated over and over again in Gasmelbari’s debut feature, TALKING ABOUT TREES, which screens in Panorama Dokumente. A poignant tribute to the resilience of cinephilia, the documentary chronicles the efforts of a group of retired Sudanese filmmakers – Ibrahim Shaddad, Manar Al-Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, and Eltayeb Mahdi – to revive a defunct cinema. In 1989, these filmmakers formed the Sudanese Film Group (SFG), an independent collective that was squashed months after its founding when a military coup established an Islamist dictatorship in Sudan. Now, three decades later, Shaddad, Al-Hilo, Ibrahim, and Mahdi continue their fight for Sudanese film culture through informal – and often mobile – public screenings. Ironically, things are not that much easier now: As the filmmakers acquire approvals and file documents, it becomes clear that the language of violent repression has been substituted by the language of censorious red tape.

Despite its historical framework (driven home forcefully in a scene where the filmmakers list all the political upheavals they have lived through, including decolonisation, three democracies, and three dictatorships), TALKING ABOUT TREES is a remarkably joyful film that revels in the movie-fuelled optimism of its protagonists. Gasmelbari was inspired to make the film after he visited one of the group’s mobile screenings. The event was beset by disasters, from car breakdowns to unsuitable weather conditions, but the stubborn dedication of Shaddad and co. impressed Gasmelbari. “I thought, I want to make a film not just about cinema, but also about this capacity to regenerate hope out of nothing.”

In many ways, TALKING ABOUT TREES is a follow-up to Gasmelbari’s doc short SUDAN’S FORGOTTEN FILMS (2018), which centred on the two men striving to preserve the country’s national film archive. Prior to the making of TALKING, Gasmelbari played a crucial role in acquiring the films of the SFG from the various basements and university archives in which they lay gathering dust. He (along with producer Marie Balducci) also helped secure a restoration deal with the Arsenal Institute of Film and Video Art. Clips from the restored films are interwoven into TALKING, providing a gorgeous illustration for its protagonists’ reference-rich banter about film craft.

By a happy coincidence, several of these films, including Shaddad’s THE HUNTING PARTY (1964) and Mahdi’s THE STATION (1989) are also playing in the Berlinale’s FORUM EXPANDED section. Gasmelbari appreciates the cross-generational poetics of unveiling TALKING ABOUT TREES to the world along with the lineage from which it arises. Honouring the work of the SFG filmmakers allows him to redress the erasure they have suffered over the years – not just from the authorities, but also from his own generation of filmmakers. “They want to appear as if they’ve come from nowhere,” he says, “so they kill their parents.”

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