Interview Suhaib Gasmelbari

"Film has the ability to re-invent life itself"

That Suhaib Gasmelbari felt no affinity with film at all until he was eighteen is down to Omar al-Bashir: the general who carried out a military coup in Sudan in 1989, when Gasmelbari was just nine, establishing a Fundamentalist regime. “Before the coup, film was more popular than football”, says the director of Talking About Trees. “The country had about sixty film theatres, a mobile cinema and more than forty film clubs. That all came to an end in a single night. A whole generation grew up with no experience of film.” In Gasmelbari’s youth, words took the place of images. “We hated the television because it was completely dominated by badly made propaganda. This helped stimulate our critical faculties at an early age. In the evenings, my grandmother would tell us Sudanese folk tales, and my mother – who studied Russian literature – would read us simplified versions of the Russian classics. This helped me understand the power of stories to bring justice to the weak and oppressed. With other children from the neighbourhood, I would act out the stories my mother told. And I started writing my own poetry and short stories.” It was not until he moved to Egypt that Gasmelbari really started to catch up with film. “With my younger brother I would sometimes watch three films in a day, often American and Egyptian titles, occasionally an Iranian film. Later, when I went to study in Tours, I discovered the Nouvelle Vague and auteur cinema from other parts of the world. I decided to stop studying literature and enrolled at the cinema faculty of the university Paris 8.” “I’m still not entirely sure why film made such a huge impression on me. Perhaps because as a medium it borrows from all the other arts. In my view, film is a mature love – a relationship that is no longer only about attraction, but is also about a search for the truth. Film has the ability to re-invent life itself.”

In Talking About Trees, life and film are intimately connected. Gasmelbari’s first feature-length documentary film shows four veterans of the Sudanese film scene trying to breathe life into an old cinema. “Of course, the fact that this film is about four idealists and their dream for cinema in a country where the theatres have been demolished or converted into warehouses or car parks says something about the political situation in Sudan. But Talking About Trees is not intended to be a political statement or a simplified representation of my home country’s deep, complex wounds. I wanted to stay true to the characters and the way they are treating these wounds: with care, and persistence.” The production of Talking About Trees was a logistical and financial nightmare – not least because of the prohibition on filming which is still in place in Sudan. “Hiding the making of the film perhaps took more effort than the actual making of it”, Gasmelbari says. “Only a year after the film was finished, and after the government was changed, the Sudanese film group was able to organise a screening in the very same Revolution Cinema where Talking About Trees is set. The invited audience was made up mainly of local residents. For the older audience members, it was a nostalgic experience; for the younger ones, it was the first time they experienced a film screening.” “In recent years, a few films have been made in Sudan that have gained international recognition. But it’s too early yet to call this a ‘revival’. We still need to re-establish the cinema circuit. But given the state in which Sudan currently finds itself – with so many urgent problems in the areas of justice, peace, public health, and economy – it almost feels inappropriate to talk about the development of a national film industry.”

Doc Talk with Suhaib Gasmelbari (director, second from left) and the protagonists of Talking About Trees, during IDFA 2019.