'Talking About Trees': How four men fought to revive Sudan’s love for cinema

Documentary director Suhaib Gasmelbari has turned the camera on those behind the Sudanese Film Group, who tried to re-open a theatre in the country under Al Bashir’s regime

Talking about Trees by Suhaib Gasmelbari. Courtesy AGAT Films & Cie
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Going to the cinema used to be a more popular pastime in Sudan than watching football, but that came to an end on June 30, 1989, when a military coup led by Omar Al Bashir resulted in the closure of cinemas and strangulation of the country's fragile film industry.

Sudanese filmmaker Suhaib Gasmelbari recalls that the day after the coup, the regime imposed a curfew that "automatically killed the cinema halls". He says the National Corporation of Cinema, which imported films for Sudanese theatres, was also shut down, which meant "everything died". 

Gasmelbari was nine when Al Bashir carried out the coup and was 16 when he left Sudan, going first to the UAE, where his father was living, then to Egypt, "which at that time was the capital, a little bit, of the Sudanese opposition". By then he had seen a lot. During the first year of the coup alone, family members had been sacked from their jobs as "enemies of the people", had been arrested or had gone into exile or hiding.

On the set of Talking About Trees. Courtesy AGAT Films & Cie

"It's really impossible to describe that time," he says, revealing that he intends to draw from his experience for his next film. "It really was a time of horror. And everything was forbidden. Khartoum was totally dead from six o'clock onwards. Sudan became a cultural desert. For a generation, you couldn't watch any film. You couldn't find any book that was forbidden."

Years later, Gasmelbari was studying cinema at a university in Paris and returned to Sudan to shoot a fiction film for the final year of his Masters. "Everything went wrong," he recalls. "It was very complicated to shoot a fiction film that doesn't go through official channels and it was impossible to get the permits. At the same time, I didn't want to ask for them because it would mean compromising with the regime. It needed a lot of relationships and meant shaking bloody hands, so I dropped the project."

Around that time, Gasmelbari met Suleiman Ibrahim, a veteran filmmaker, as well as Ibrahim Shaddad, Al Tayeb Mehdi and Manar Al Helou. Together, the four men made up the Sudanese Film Group, which they founded in April 1989 as a way to give them more independence from the state. "They faced a lot of obstacles and bureaucracy and censorship, even from the democratic governments, because they [the governments] looked at cinema as a tool of power," says Gasmelbari.

The four men had also studied film abroad and returned to Sudan, "full of hope of creating an artistic cinema". The coup quashed this ambition. But it didn't kill the group's passion, or stop them from dreaming.

Here's a clip from 'Talking About Trees':

When Gasmelbari first encountered them, in about 2006, Shaddad had recently come back from exile and the group were trying to rebuild the SFG. They were also spreading their love of cinema by putting on makeshift outdoor screenings in villages outside Khartoum. Gasmelbari attended one of these events and says the experience sowed the seeds of Talking About Trees, his quietly compelling debut feature and a film that won the Golden Star for Best Feature Documentary last month at Egypt's El Gouna Film Festival.

He recalls arriving late for the group's outdoor screening. "People were already waiting for us," he says. "They put up their canvas screen using two sticks dug into the earth to stabilise it. And then a dusty wind started and it seemed like everything was going wrong. The screen was shaking and the wind was inflating it, so Ibrahim and Manar got two chairs and attached the screen to them, and then sat on the chairs, laughing at the same time.

“There was a lot of dust and it was difficult to keep your eyes open, but no one left. It was really epic and it was at that moment the necessity to make the film was born.”

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 16: Director Suhaib Gasmelbari  with his Glashuette Original-Documentary Award for his film 'Talking about trees'  speaks on stage at the closing ceremony of the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Berlinale Palace on February 16, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images)

Talking About Trees captures the four men's warm camaraderie, energy and humour, as they attempt to reopen a large open-air cinema in a town away from the capital. Although Gasmelbari includes fragments of the directors' films, Talking About Trees is not a documentary about the history of Sudanese cinema, but about the men in the present and, poignantly, "all these images that were prevented from being and the desire that remains inside them".

He shot most of the film in 2015 when Al Bashir was re-elected in a vote denounced as a "political charade" by activists – without permits, meaning the shoot had to be kept secret. There were some clashes and on one occasion his team were approached by "security guys with sticks" who ordered them to stop filming, but Gasmelbari says he left anything out of the documentary that would "seem like political agitation". Instead, he says that he wants audiences to "feel the weight of the power" through his protagonists.

"It's like a symbolic victory over the regime to make a film that looks really calm and contemplative, and is faithful to the characters and their rhythms," he says. "What I like about them is their way of dealing with the wounds. They are full of wounds and were subjected to many horrible things, but their way of dealing with them is very particular. They deal with them with dignity and sarcasm, and their friendship makes them strong."

Gasmelbari says he didn't see the point of addressing the horrors of the past three decades in Sudan directly. Having worked as an activist and with human rights organisations, he says he was fed what he came to believe was a myth, "that what we need in Sudan to change things is to inform the international community". They told the world in the 1990s what was happening in the country, he says, but nothing seemed to change. "They were saving the regime, sometimes, from popular movements, or from being defeated by armed movements in the south," he says.

His film's title thus refers to the "inner tension and conflict inside every artist in Sudan, or in any other situation of fascism or oppression and killing, in which you ask yourself whether it's ethically legitimate to talk about cinema and art. I wanted to treat this question, because it even works inside me". 

Picture taken on July 11, 1989 at Khartoum showing Sudanese military and political leader Omar al-Bashir waving his supporters during a rally. (Photo by Mike NELSON / AFP)

Al Bashir was deposed in April and power is now shared between the military and civilians. Gasmelbari says he is cautiously optimistic about the future of his country. Though he expects a lot of movies to be made in Sudan this year, he says it will take time for the country's film industry to be rebuilt.    

"Al Bashir's gift was a country destroyed ­economically, socially and everything," he says. "I think the state cannot support a film industry because it needs to support health and education, and everything that was privatised and destroyed by the capitalists of Al Bashir. Where to find the money to build an infrastructure for the cinema?"