The Jaafar Nimeiry era in Sudan produced much art about the regime, ranging from the illustrations that filled Ibrahim El-Salahi’s prison notebooks to the poetry of Mahjoub Sharif. In contrast, Omar al Bashir’s reign is notorious for crushing it. The 1989 coup brought with it the imposition of austere Islamic laws that sought to transform the cultural sphere and eliminate perceived heterodoxies: cinemas were closed, books were banned, public gatherings were severely restricted and cultural archives were left to decay. Many of Sudan’s most famous filmmakers, poets and musicians went into prison or exile during the early years of his regime, whilst others were censored into obscurity. Reflecting the view of many at the time, the late novelist Tayeb Salih (whose book Season of Migration to the North was initially banned by the regime for its sexual references) penned an oft-cited article questioning “From where did these people come?”
Today, in the capital and elsewhere, anti-government graffiti from the dawn of the uprising remains, and the painted faces of martyrs guard the streets. Before it was violently dispersed, the sit-in outside army headquarters routinely featured musicians singing in support of the uprising, whilst activist murals rapidly spread like tentacles across its walls and into the streets. The recent flourishing of revolutionary art, music, cultural exhibitions, and calls to archive the past is often contrasted with the perceived dearth of artistic expression under Bashir.
Suhaib Gasmelbari’s film Talking About Trees takes its name from a Bertolt Brecht poem, one fit for the Bashir era, named “To Those Born Later,” and references the following lines: “What kind of times are these, when/To talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies silence about so many horrors?” The film follows four aging Sudanese filmmakers in their quest to revive cinema in Sudan, and in so doing, poignantly and often humorously depicts the nuances and frustrations of daily life under the military dictatorship.
Life after the 1989 coup was marred by state violence, mass displacement, and an escalation of wars. It was also characterized by an absurd authoritarian bureaucracy that made the simplest interactions with the state a mammoth undertaking. Control over the cultural sphere would be achieved not only through coercion, but through the construction of a bureaucratic labyrinth featuring an endless list of impossible criteria that seemed designed to frustrate. The act of securing simple permits or updating papers became increasingly lengthy and fragmented, requiring various levels of approval and documentation that often seemed to be made up on the spot.
Talking About Trees traces attempts by four filmmakers—Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Ibrahim, Manar Al-Hilo and Altayeb Mahdi—to screen a film at the defunct Revolution Cinema. It is the above mentioned bureaucratic barriers, from the omnipresent state, that drive the narrative of the movie. In one scene, their colleague Hana Abdelrahman attempts to obtain authorization from the security services for a film screening and is sent to countless offices, each telling her she needs to go elsewhere for authorization. The absurdity of the circular, never-ending journey is perfectly captured; the security services are never seen in the film but their mark is everywhere.
These moments are coupled with a gentle depiction of a touching friendship between the filmmakers. Like Gasmelbari, the four all studied filmmaking abroad—Shaddad at the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg in Brandenburg in the 1960s, Ibrahim at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow in the 1970s, and Mahdi and Al-Hilo at the Cairo Higher Institute for Cinema in the 1970s—before returning to Sudan to produce several films that would go on to win international prizes. These experiences come through in their works and humor; in one heart-warming scene celebrating Ali-Hilo’s birthday, the four recount the experiences of their generation—colonialism, three democracies and three dictatorships—before going on to mock his age: “Supervised by Lenin himself/And Maxim Gorky/Eisenstein’s classmate!” By the time the film wrapped, the filmmakers would have lived through another popular uprising, culminating in the overthrow of Sudan’s third military dictator.
Gasmelbari allows them to tell these stories and experiences in a way that allows their good-natured, gallows humor to come through. Familiar irritations also abound; the interruptions of poetic moments by the deafening call to prayer emanating from blaring loudspeakers are a familiar occurrence. Countless mosques have mushroomed across Sudan over the years, with six surrounding the cinema at the time of filming. They threaten to drown out the film with their evening call to prayer, and like everything else, the four approach this challenge with humor and pragmatism: viewers will be permitted a prayer break and then, in Shaddad’s words, invited to return “to this place of ill repute” to finish the film.
Touching on deeply political issues such as exile, imprisonment, and interrogation, the film nevertheless confines the faces of the regime to the shadows, centering instead on its everyday manifestations and the daily lives of the filmmakers. The exception is a brief scene towards the end when the 2015 election results are announced in the background; Bashir has ostensibly won 94.5% of votes and gives a speech saluting the people and democracy in Sudan.
Talking About Trees is a wonderfully understated film about artistic expression and repression in Sudan, inevitably political without being about politics, carefully and unassumingly illustrating the beautiful relationship between four filmmakers who dreamed of returning to a different Sudan, and the ways the regime—kept firmly in the background—permeates every aspect of daily life.