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 was also in Moscow in the 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 third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.
The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.
My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.
The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.
I enjoyed writer-director Hong Khaou’s debut feature, Lilting, and we’re in similar territory investigating the issue of diaspora identity. Though the protagonist (Henry Golding’s Kit), as in Lilting, is gay, unlike the first film the emphasise isn’t on sexuality but on his attempt to understand where he belongs. Kit is returning to Saigon, having left as a young child, and finds himself a stranger in the land that nurtured him. His dislocation is not presented in any way as dramatic, it is just something he tries to work though.
Like Lilting, Monsoon is a melodrama, but eschews extremes: there is no deluge of emotion. To criticise this would be unfair as it’s clearly not the intention of the film to engage in histrionics; I like my melodrama to be meaty. Although we all have crises in our lives they are usually played out in a low-key fashion, as is Kit’s.
Kit hooks up with Parker Sawyers’ Lewis, son of a Vietnam veteran. Lewis’ relationship with his adopted home is also conflicted as he’s obviously troubled by America’s role in the country. However, there’s no suggestion from the film about how to deal with this other than through an angry denial that he ‘isn’t one of those’ (gung-ho) Americans.
Typically of melodrama, mirrors proliferate and often disorientate as we’re not sure whether we’re seeing the character or his (women are marginal in the film) reflection. For me it was setting up interesting themes but never developing them; we never learn who is in the mirror. Of course there are no easy answers but I’d’ve liked the film to suggest some with which I could argue or agree. The widescreen compositions are immaculately framed.
Similarly melodramatic, is the manic traffic (which I’m told is absolutely Saigon) which makes it hard to think. So maybe that’s why there are no ‘answers’.
Clearly I’m lukewarm about the film for it was too cool for me. However, it is certainly worth seeing. In a world of shifting identities (one of the reasons why bigots like Farage and many Brexiteers crave for the certainty of Britain’s ‘great’ past) we need cinema to interrogate what it means to be who we are.
Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.
Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.
As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.
In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.
I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.
The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).
It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?
I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.
This charming and enjoyable film is difficult to categorise. It is a potential family melodrama that evolves into a story about its central character Hana, a girl of 11 or 12. Hana’s story has elements of comedy and drama and also perhaps a gentle critique of our expectations of family life. With its bright colours and music it also made me think of anime and manga and I think that it offers something distinctively Korean or Japanese.
As the narrative begins, Hana is being elected as the ‘Best Classmate’ at the end of Summer Term. She rushes home full of energy and enthusiasm but is soon deflated by her parents’ squabbles and her older brother’s indifference. Strangely, the ‘Best Classmate’ seems to have no friends in her home district – or perhaps they are away for the summer? But one day she finds a younger girl, 7 year-old Yoo-jin, who appears to be lost in a supermarket. Searching for the girl’s parents, Hana finds instead Yoo-mi, the girl’s 9 year-old sister. Gradually Hana will be drawn into the sister’s world as they are mostly alone in a flat while their parents are working on a summer job several miles away. It’s the perfect opportunity for Hana to practice all the nurturing skills she isn’t allowed to carry out at home. The ‘House of Us’ turns out to be a house made by the three girls out of cardboard waste as just one of several craft-based activities. Hana becomes more like a mother than an older sister, revelling in the chance to cook.
Hana’s solution for her own disjointed family is for the four of them to go on a ‘family trip’. But is this likely to happen? An adventure with the two younger girls sounds more like a possibility. The film is in effect narrated by Hana. It’s a child’s perspective on a world she doesn’t totally understand and isn’t yet able to come to terms with. This means that writer-director Yoon Ga-eun’s film shifts between a child’s adventure and an adult family drama, as we learn more about both Hana and her ‘two families’. The film is the second feature by the director to look at the emotional lives of young girls, the first being The World of Us in 2016. The database of the Korean Film Council reveals that the film was released on 147 screens in South Korea, drawing 52,000 admissions and $353,000 to date at the box office.
There are five Korean films in the festival and I think it’s good that we get to see films like this. South Korea is a developed film culture which enables intelligent and enjoyable films like this to get a wide-ish release. I think a similar film would struggle to get such a release in the UK. But I think quite a few parents would like to share a film like this with their children. The film ultimately stands or falls on the performance of Kim Na-yeon as Hana and I think she does an excellent job. My only concern was the Korean diet on display. Hana has to produce a cookbook as a school holiday project and her only recipes seem to include meat, kimchi and far too many eggs and ketchup!