BERLIN: In a pitch-black room a man, partly illuminated by hand lamps, speaks into a mobile phone.
He reminds someone the electricity went out four days before and asks whether it’ll ever be restored.
He closes his phone and, still lit by flashlight, he and his colleagues reassemble before the camera. A mustachioed gent carefully wraps his head in a blue scarf. Another fellow claps an imaginary clapboard.
“Action!” says director Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, and another fellow begins to crank a pretend film camera.
“I can’t continue the scene. I’m too happy,” gestures the man in hijab, veteran filmmaker Ibrahim Shadad. “Mister DeMille, do you mind if I say a few words?”
Shadad proceeds to re-enact Gloria Swanson’s maniacal closing scene in Billy Wilder’s 1950 thriller “Sunset Boulevard,” which includes this immortal and given the four-day-long blackout and the pantomime film crew around him comical line:
“There’s just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there, in the dark.”
As the final day of public screenings unwinds at Berlinale 2019, one work that lingers in the imagination is “Talking About Trees,” Suhaib Gasmelbari’s feature-length documentary examining the Sudanese cinema landscape.
The film, which begins in this pitch-black room and comic recreation of Wilder’s classic, is much more interesting, and fun, than this pigeonhole suggests.
After the opening sequence, Gasmelbari’s film reopens in the midst of a radio broadcast in which Ibrahim and the other veteran members of the Sudanese Film Group are invited to discuss the state of Sudan’s cinema industry. It’s a tongue-in-cheek discussion.
“When you talk about a death,” Ibrahim observes, assuming the tone of a forensic investigator in a movie, “you must consider the cause of death. Did the victim die of natural causes, or murder?”
With the radio host now chuckling in knowing anticipation, Ibrahim resumes. “In this case, I’m searching for the traitor who’s responsible for the death.”
Plenty of nonfiction works have gazed back on regions where cinema culture once flickered to life with local directors shooting movies and local audiences gathering in cinemas to watch them only to be snuffed out by nervous politicians.
Berlinale 69 also hosted the premiere of another such doc, Mariam Ghani’s “What We Left Unfinished,” which charts the rise and fall of Afghan film under the country’s communist regime.
Though Gasmelbari doesn’t ignore Sudan’s contemporary political realities, neither does he foreground them. All direct references to the Bashir regime emerge from local television news broadcasts.
What most makes his film stand out from past and contemporary docs of this type, however, is the energy and imagination with which Gasmelbari tells his story. (That may explain why “Talking About Trees” won both the Panorama Audience Award for Documentary Film at Berlinale 69 and the Glashutte Original Documentary Award.)
The doc samples the films a handful of Sudanese filmmakers were able to complete before and since the 1989 military coup.
Many of them were made by SFG members featured in Gasmelbari’s cast, and the Berlinale premiere of “Talking About Trees” was accompanied by the rerelease of seven shorts made by Ibrahim, Shadad and their SFG colleagues, digitally restored by Arsenal the Institute for Film and Video Art that’s a stalwart Berlinale venue.
The main focus of “Talking About Trees,” however, is the efforts of Ibrahim, Shadad, and film veterans Altayeb Mahdi and Manar Al Hilo to get permission to project a film in one of Omdurman’s abandoned cinemas.
Were it fiction, the protagonists’ story might have been inspired by Kafka. What makes the film unique is the sceptical sense of humor that animates their long friendship.
First they must find a venue and, while searching, the men find how Omdurman’s abandoned cinemas are now being used in one case a clubhouse for the city’s football squads, in another a hall for wedding parties.
Ultimately they settle on the derelict Cinema Thawra (Revolution Cinema).
While exploring the space’s back rooms, the filmmakers stumble upon plastic bags full of old film stock.
“Poor film,” one of the men sighs. “So heavy. So costly.”
“Yes,” another chuckles. “This is the history of Sudanese cinema!”
A little later, the camera captures Shadad leading a camel through the the open-air cinema space, gesturing here and there as he does, as if giving the beast a guided tour.
It’s Gasmelbari’s successful balancing of journalistic melancholy with dashes of affection and amusement that make his film so entertaining for the audience.
During one of the small outdoor projections improvised by SFG, the protagonists screen Chaplin’s “Modern Times” for a small audience.
While the little tramp is once again taken in hand by that stern copper for not paying for his meal at a restaurant, the roll-out screen begins to roll itself back up again.
The comedy is compounded but with a tinge of bitterness.
SFG uses an old white van to transport projection equipment around different locations in Omdurman and its environs.
The van’s in a poor state of repair, it seems, and the film’s principal motif shows the filmmakers pushing the van down the road after it breaks down.
At one point Ibrahim recounts how the army once detained him for interrogation, demanding to know if he knew any members of the SFG.
“They’re my friends,” he recalls.
“The captain said, ‘We know Suleiman is a communist.’
“‘Oh? Then he’s not my friend.’”
All hands burst into laughter.
For more on the winners at Berlinale 69, see: berlinale.de