Talking About Trees is a wonderful film that manages to tell a sad story but to imbue it with the energy and the warm human feeling of its remarkable central characters. A ‘first feature’ documentary by Suhaib Gasmelbari, it won a prize at Berlin this year and has been acquired for UK distribution by New Wave Films. Do try and get to see it if it comes your way. You are unlikely to be disappointed.
There are two narratives woven together here. The main ‘driver’ is the attempt by the ‘Sudan Film Group’ to revive a cinema culture in Sudan where cinema-going was effectively banished by the regime which came to power after the military coup of 1989. The film group comprises four of the Sudanese filmmakers who were trained abroad in the 1970s and who returned to produce the first Sudanese films. Now in their late 60s they travel to villages around Khartoum offering ‘pop-up’ film shows using a laptop and a small digital projector. But their aim is to rent one of the large and virtually abandoned cinemas in Omdurman and show contemporary films to mass audiences. But to do this they must navigate the bureaucracies which remain reluctant to see cinema return (the film was made before Omar al-Bashir was deposed earlier this year.). While they work on trying to organise a large scale screening, the old friends also begin to excavate the history of Sudanese cinema, finding scratchy old copies of their own films and VHS tapes that were part of their collections of global cinema. One of the four is also engaged in making a film with his smartphone about his experience of being imprisoned and interrogated at the time of the coup. The history of what actually happened around 1989 is told in subtle ways, so we see the filmmakers being interviewed for a radio programme in which the interviewer is gently corrected about the demise of cinema in Sudan. It didn’t die of natural causes, it was shot.
What the film also usefully reveals is that Sudan experienced what happened across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in francophone countries. Talented young filmmakers (mostly young men) were able to travel to film schools abroad, often to Paris but also to the Soviet Union. Sudan had been under British control before 1956 but hadn’t been fully part of the British approach to documentary which was the legacy in Ghana or Kenya for example. (This website account suggests that there was a British colonial film legacy even if limited.) Instead in the 1970s the Sudanese went to the USSR or Germany or France. There they learned how to make the kinds of politically charged ‘Third Cinema’ films which won prizes and sometimes gained a form of international distribution as well as attracting local audiences. In one scene we see a filmmaker now in his late sixties phoning a Russian film archive to see if they have a copy of the film he made as a young man. To place this in perspective we also see a phone call to a European company that sells cinema screens – we learn just how much it might cost to re-equip one of the Sudan’s big (outdoor) cinemas. Across Africa traditional cinemas have closed over the last 25 years, mostly because people now watch films on satellite TV or forms of digital video and cinemas have been bought by churches and wedding entrepreneurs. In Sudan it is the government and a fundamentalist form of Islam that helped to close them.
The film was produced with various European partners and also with support from the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. One of the films shown by the group to a village audience is Waiting for Happiness (2002) by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and this suggests the solidarity of African filmmakers. These two directors represent the last link to the generation that travelled abroad to study film, Sissako also in Moscow in the early 1980s. Sissako too has been involved in re-opening a cinema in Mali. We do get to see some clips from the films made by the four Sudanese filmmakers back in the 1970s and 1980s and the documentary’s title refers to one of these.
We’ll have the chance to see Talking About Trees again in West Yorkshire at the Leeds International Film Festival in November. I hope it proves popular. I do worry that its one weakness is that it takes a little time to get going for audiences not already au fait with the history of cinema in Africa. Some of the later scenes in which the old filmmakers talk to young footballers and spectators about what they want to see in a re-opened cinema are very lively and engaging. What the young people (and older people) want to see are contemporary films from America or India, something which leads the Sudan Film Group to consider showing Tarantino’s Django Unchained (US 2012). There are, I think, at least two commercial cinemas operating in Khartoum which have internet listings. I assume that these attract a middle-class wealthy patrons but it would be good to hear from anyone who knows the cinema scene in Khartoum. If you want to know more about how Africa Cinema developed in the 1970s, try to find a copy of Caméra d’Afrique directed by Férid Boughedir in 1983.
The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) is a film festival in Burkina Faso, held biennially in Ouagadougou, and dedicated to African and African film-makers. It was founded in 1969 . Then the host state was known as Upper Volta. The state became Burkina Faso under the leadership of Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary anti-colonial figure. In an early speech Sankara drew on the traditions of the US War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Great October Revolution. His socialist style programme was bought to a halt in a military coup in 1987: clearly involving intrigues by foreign states, in an area where French Neo-colonialism is potent. The Festival has continued and remains the most important forum for African Cinema. In the same year an association of African filmmakers was formed, The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes). Several of the film-makers featured this year were important in this development, including Med Hondo and Gaston Kaboré, who later became Secretary-General. And there was Ousmane Sembène who is the best-known of these film-makers and who features have been fairly widely available.
Il Cinema Ritrovato has developed a productive relationship with the World Film Foundation, dedicated to the restoration of important films across world cinema. Their new project aims at restoring fifty African films that are considered important as films, as cultural products and historical artifacts. The programme in Bologna this year presented eleven films, eight in new restorations, as examples from the African Film heritage.
I have already posted on one of the titles: Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les Bicots-Negres, vos voisins, 1974). This was one of the films screened in its original 35mm format. And it provided a tribute to the film work of Med Hondo, who died early this year. The film provided a link between the other films shown in a Ritrovato retrospective in 2017.
Among the titles were a number seen here in the 1980s but not seen since. From 1975 in Cameroon came Muna Moto directed by Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa. This was a critical study of the dowry system, but which was constrained by the censorship operating at that time. Dikongué-Pipa felt that he was able to present
only one fifth of what he felt in his heart.
In the film a young woman, because she is pregnant, has to marry an older man who already has there wives, all sterile. The drama develops when the young man who fathered the child takes drastic steps.
Problems also attended the restoration as there was mould on some sections of the original negative and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique had to work in part with a dupe print. The film, in black and white, used indigenous Duala and French with English sub-titles.
Baara from Mali (1978) was directed Souleymane Cissé. His subsequent feature Yeelen (1987) has become a classic of African films seen in Europe. Cissé had suffered arrest and jail for his previous film which addressed the question of rape; the charge was for accepting French funding; something the ruling class in this state have done right up until today. Set in Bamako this film is a study of trade unionism in a country struggling to escape Neo-colonialism. There are two key character, of similar ages; one an intellectual the other a manual worker. Both work at a factory where the exploitation leads to confrontation and the need for people to identify their interests, individual and collective.
The various elements operating in the film are unified by the narrative strategy employed – specifically related to the Marxist notion of history as essentially collective.
The film screened from a colour 35mm print and used indigenous Bambara language. This was a version with Italian sub-titles and an English translation.
Wend Kuuni was from Burkina Faso itself and made in 1982 by Gaston Kaboré. A young boy is abandoned in the bush. Found, he adopted into a village family. The simple drama develops as we learn the trauma that made him mute and the further action that leads to a cure.
Kaboré, in 2017, explained that
My preoccupation has been to find a film making form to address my own people enshrined in both cinematic language and the legacy of our own story-telling tradition.
This offers as sense of the form of the ‘griot’, a traditional story-teller whose function can be seen at work in a number of African films. The dialogue was in the local language of Mooré with English subtitles.
This was another restoration by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. The digital version looked really good. We also had an introduction by Nicola Mazzanti from the Cinémathèque which was less happy. His intentions seemed good but the delivery was rather like a harangue on the neglect of African films. Given that the audience were cineastes who had traveled distances for the festival and for this particular screening, then queued up to get a seat, [some had to stand] this seemed to me completely misdirected.
There were two films by the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. His two most famous films, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyènes (1992) were both features. The two titles were intended to be part a trilogy, Histories de petites gens / Tales of ordinary people, but Mambéty died before he could complete the third part.
Le Franc [which refers to a lottery ticket] runs for 45 minutes. The protagonist, Marigo (Dieye ma) is an itinerant musician.
With his easy-going walk and Chaplinesque clothes, Marigo immediately expresses his irreverent nature: . . . (Alessaandre Speciale, quoted in the Festival Catalogue).
Indeed Marigo does share some characteristics with the famous ‘silent’ tramp. And the film has its moments of humour. But it also shares Mambety’s taste for sardonic comment, bricolage and a narrative that literally jumps around characters and settings. Marigo shares Chaplin’s famous characters ability to stare down adversity. But such adversities are more dramatic and oppressive in a Neo-colonial setting. This is a landscape in which poverty and decay surround everybody. Yet the characters are vital as is the music which repeatedly disrupts the action.
We had a good transfer to digital with the Wolof dialogue accompanied by English sub-titles. However, the songs were not translated and I am sure they added to the dynamic but bitter story.
La Petite vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun). The ‘sun’ of the title is a daily newspaper which children tout round the streets of [I think] Dakar but it clearly has a double meaning [at least] in the story.. Sili (Lissa Baléra) is a paraplegic. Despite this and her crutches she gamely works round the streets selling what seems to be a popular tabloid. She also gamely ignores the taunts and tricks of the other sellers, all teenage boys. This is a film about facing adversity but with a more upbeat and less sardonic tone than Le Franc.
Mambéty, who died in 1998, was unable to finish the film which was at that point ready for editing. It was completed by colleagues after his death. It is an affecting drama with an emotional punch. It is also more in a linear fashion that Mambety’s other films and there is little sense of the irony that he usually offers. I did wonder if the final film is exactly as he himself would have made it. Like the other title it was in a good quality DCP, running 45 minutes and again in Wolof with English sub-titles.
There were several other features and material on FESPACO. Notably, nearly all the films came from North and West Africa. The exceptions were the Hondo and a title from Morocco. A number were in French though we also had titles in indigenous languages like that by Cissé and by Mambéty. This is an area once termed ‘Francophone’ because France was the dominant colonial power. This offers an interesting cultural factor, since narrative films are more common from this area than other parts which were dominated by Britain and the English language. France has continued to exercise a neo-colonial dominance in the region including military adventures. The flip side being the cultural plank and many films had to rely on French technical resources in their production. One of the key aims of FESPACO was to develop the indigenous film industries. This lead to a flowering in the late 1970s and 1980s, witnessed by some of the films at the festival. This fell away in the 1990s but there have been some important cinematic ventures in recent years; [see posts under ‘African Cinema’].
We can look forward to more of the restorations by the World Film Foundation at future festivals.
This film was part of the ‘Cinema Libro FESPACO 1969-2019‘ programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Festival has developed a strong relationship with the World Film Foundation who are leading the African Film Heritage Project which is committed to restoring 50 African films significant in cinema and culture. This series celebrates the Pan African Film and Television Festival at Ouagadougou which was set up in 1969. That festival has become the centre for both enjoying African film and supporting and developing African Cinema.
This title was directed by Med Hondo and provided a testament to this important film-maker who died on 2nd March this year. We had enjoyed a trio of Hondo’s films at the 2017 Ritrovato. And fortunately he attended and we were able to hear him talk about his film work. Med Hondo was born in Mauritania in 1936. He migrated to France in 1959 and the exploitation and oppression of migrants was a central theme in his films. He was well versed in International Cinema and his own work was both unconventional and used avant-garde techniques but in the service of accessible films which were ‘made politically’.
Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins was his second film following on from Soleil O (1967). Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue described the film’s structure:
[It] analyses the living conditions of African migrant workers in France in the m id-1970s . . . It comprises seven sequences exploring, respectively the conditions of possibility of cinematic representations in Africa …historical dissonance through the dialectic of past and present . . . a flashback to the eve of African independence , the predicaments of the post-colony, an assessment of the living conditions of migrant workers and the actions taken to transform these conditions . . .
The film opens with a bravura sequence where an African man addresses the audience direct to camera. In a sardonic manner familiar in Hondo’s films he questions the viewer on cinema, Africa and representation. The camera tracks between close-ups, mid-shots and longshots to also reveal the walls covered with film posters. In other sequences he uses a montage of stills, prints, pictures to show Africa in this way. Dramatised sequences point the experiences of African migrants whilst others point how European capitalism retains its hold, in this case on a ‘Francophone’ Africa. And documentary film reveals the actual conditions and the actual actions as Africans become part of the French proletariat. Towards the close of the film footage of a vast worker’s demonstration, with black and white proletarians side by side, voices the opposition to exploitation and racism.
Hondo and his team used both visual and aural montage as developed by the Soviet pioneers. The cinematography was by Jean Boffety and François Catonné working to a script developed by Hondo. The editing, involving a sequence of stop-motion, was by Michel Masnier. And the music, with a varied combination of African rhythms and French popular songs, was by a team of Catherine Le Forestier, Mohamed Ou Mustapha, Frank Valmont and Louis Zavier.
The screening used a version from 1988. In an approach shared by other in Third Cinema, Hondo screened parts of the film to the workers who appear in it and made changes in accordance with their suggestions. So in the opening sequence we actually see in the background a poster for the release of the first version of the film in 1974. Hondo described it as ‘a work in progress’.
The complete film is challenging but the presentation is quite clear. Med Hondo has a clear grasp of the operation of capital in advanced European states and of the way that neo-colonialism operates in the late C20th. The tone varies from sardonic to dramatic to informative to the powerfully moving. The film was shot in colour and we enjoyed a 35mm print from the Audio-visual Archive of the French Communist Party.
The film develops the content and style of the earlier Soleil O and also connects with the later works of the film-maker. The screening provided a memorial to a fine director. I was saddened by the thought that I would no longer be able to wait for another film from Hondo; who had been trying (it seems vainly) to develop a further cinematic project. However, I am heartened that his unique films will be available still for audiences. A friend in New York recently saw two of these at an impressive retrospective of Liberation Cinema.
This shortish documentary feature (68 mins) was screened as part of Bradford’s Refugee Week with various intros and post-screening comments from members of the local Sudanese community in the city. The screen at the Delius Arts Centre is located in front of the stained glass windows of the late 19th century German church in the city (which still holds a service once a month, I think?). Bradford received many German migrants in the late 19th century and now it receives migrants from Africa and West Asia. It’s great to live in a city that welcomes those who need to move here for whatever reason.
Beats of the Antonov is a film by the Sudanese cinematographer and now director Hajooj Kuka who was educated in Beirut and in the US and who seems now to live between several places. He returned to Sudan to make this film with the backing of South African producer Steven Markovitz, who has helped bring many African stories to the screen. There has been plenty going on in Sudan since 2014 and the regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who had held power since 1989 was finally ended in April this year after waves of protest in Sudanese cities. The situation is still highly volatile. This film is about the attempts by the al-Bashir regime to crush the resistance of the people of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The conflict is still live today. This area is now on the Southern border of Sudan since the partition of the country which created South Sudan in 2011 and there are refugees from the South in the area.
The film’s clever title refers to both the bombs dropped on villages by Antonov transport aircraft and Russian-built jet fighters and the music produced by the people on the ground as their means of solidifying their resistance and maintaining their strong community bonds. Hajooj Kuka started out thinking he was making a film about refugees and bombings but discovered a form of music and songs that he had never heard before (see the clip below). The music is produced using improvised musical instruments and many of the songs celebrate the everyday lives of the people of small communities under attack.
As filming progressed it became clear that the musical culture of these villages was all tied up with the fundamental question of ‘identity’ in Khartoum. Sudan is a large geographical area that contains many groups with different language cultures, different religious beliefs and a strong sense of identity. The Ottoman Empire and then the British Imperial administrations from 1899 up to Sudanese independence shifted between policies that either maintained or attempted to obliterate regional differences. Since 1956 there has been an attempt to ‘standardise’ Sudanese culture as Arabic-speaking and Islamic, something generally resisted by peoples from different backgrounds calling for recognition of their individual cultural identities. Kuka himself explains in the second clip below how he soon became aware of the importance of this in the mountains and how he started to reflect on his own identity. There are several comments in the film by local people about their ‘split’ identity between local and national ‘Sudanese’. One example that Kuka explores is the ‘girls’ music’ sung by some of the young women in the villages. The elders don’t like this music because it isn’t ‘traditional’, but neither is it like the commercial pop music played in Khartoum. The ‘girls’ compose their own lyrics about their lives sung to simple tunes. The dilemma for the local people is how to preserve one identity but not become ‘second-class citizens’ in a national sense. But in the meantime, how do they fight against the bombers? The film does include footage of the paramilitary forces of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
This is a remarkable film that Hajooj Kaka made with the people of the region and which he has now taken around the world since its showing at Toronto in 2014. Not surprisingly it provoked lots of comments from the Sudanese in the audience in Bradford, including one from the area in question. The complicated political history of the country and its current issues are very important for the Sudanese people and their families in the UK. It was a privilege to be part of the audience and to very much enjoy the film – and also to realise just how much there still is to learn about British imperialist and colonialist practices in Africa and their role in the damaged future lives of ex-colonial subjects.