With a program of three films, IDFA shines a spotlight on creative filmmakers working in severely restricted circumstances in Sudan.
There's a level of irony in the fact that Suhaib Gasmelbari's Talking About Trees has been included in the Spotlight: Sudan program, as for the film's protagonists, a spotlight is one of the things they are lacking. The spotlight of a film projector, to be precise. Talking About Trees centers on four aging film directors and follows their attempts to keep cinema alive under Sudan's repressive regime. In the film's marvelous opening scene, the four men re-enact a scene from Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard during one of the many power outages which plague their city.
The program of three films films by filmmakers from Sudan is one of two Spotlight programs at this year's festival. All three films were supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund at some stae of their development. The Spotlight aims to increase awareness about the issues the country is facing as well as promote solidarity. Since the country's independence in 1956 through to the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and beyond, stability has been rare in the nation.
Despite these continuing circumstances, the three Sudanese films in the Spotlight program choose to highlight the optimism and persistence of their protagonists. In the case of Talking About Trees, the continued hope in the face of struggle and adversity of the four filmmakers it portrays gives the film its uplifting tone. It was also the starting point for Gasmelbari in the making of the film, he said in a radio interview during the Berlinale earlier this year. “They are philosophers of hope. After more than 40 years of deceptions, repression, and everything they have seen, they still have humor and can still regenerate hope every day. Where do they get this courage and hope?”
The film's title is drawn from Bertolt Brecht's poem To Those Born Later, written in the early years of the Third Reich—a poem whose opening line might also inflect a lack of spotlights: “Truly, I live in dark times!” More pointedly, it refers to the inner conflicts of those living through, and surviving, repression. It's a struggle his protagonists often reflected on, Gasmelbari said in Berlin: “What is the moral legitimacy of speaking about art in times of war, of fascism, of torture, of poverty?” In fact, Gasmelbari says, it is essential. “If you are an artist in times of fascism, you can make your art if you compromise a little bit. But they chose to be honest with themselves.”
Each in their own way, the three films in Spotlight: Sudan choose culture over repression—whether it's cinema in Talking About Trees, a female soccer team in Khartoum Offside, or the ode to Sudan's traditional music offered by Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Antonov. The latter is the “older brother” in the Spotlight program, having first screened at IDFA in 2014; director Hajooj Kuka has since filmed the fiction feature aKasha, which premiered in Venice in 2018. Speaking at IDFA in 2014, he explained that with Beats of the Antonov, he “didn't want to make a war movie, or a humanitarian movie. I wanted to give a sense of what daily life is like in Sudan. That seemed more real, more important to me than the war.”
Footage of cultural events, with people dancing and singing, is interspersed with interviews giving context to Sudanese culture. This day-to-day sense of togetherness is only sporadically interrupted by bombings. “It was all about finding the right rhythm,” Kuka explained in 2014. “Seeing how people dance, how they move, play music, you get a better image of what Sudan is like.”
Back in 2014, Kuka encountered the same problem as the protagonists in Talking About Trees: screening the film in Sudan was nearly impossible, despite success on the international festival circuit—among the film's many accolades was the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. “How do you screen the film when the government is so oppressive?”, he lamented. “People aren't allowed to meet anywhere. You can meet at the universities, or you can meet at the mosque, or in the marketplace. But there's really nothing outside of that, so there's no room for cultural activities.”
Not much has changed in the intervening five years, that much is clear from both Talking About Trees and Khartoum Offside, Marwa Zein's portrait of female soccer players in Sudan's capital Khartoum, who dream of playing on a national team in the World Cup. Like the filmmakers in Talking About Trees, the women tackle their many challenges with remarkable good spirits.
Speaking at the Hot Docs film festival earlier this year, Zein gave a succinct description of her film which exactly captures this spirit: “How to survive oppression and a suppressive environment using one of the most effective weapons: humor.” Humor makes way for hope and optimism, and as such, it's a weapon all three of these filmmakers wield with stunning accuracy.
Photo: director Marwa Zein at Thursday's Doc Talk after her film Khartoum Offside.