Talking About Trees: I'd walk a mile for a movie.
The Museum of Photographic Arts once again hosts the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which, for the first time in its 11-year history, screens virtually and therefore all across the United States. The lineup is yours to watch between February 2-8. Purchase tickets by visiting MOPA.org/HRWFF. Tickets are limited and likely to sell out. It’s wise to book in advance.
Talking About Trees (2019)
“Once upon a time in the land of films…” mutters Suleiman Ibrahim as he looks down at the abandoned projection booth floor, where gritty, unspooled yards of celluloid, curled from the Sudanese heat, crunch beneath his feet. The 35mm projectors, so dirty that it takes a leaf-blower to clean out the dust, are unusable. “My dear, a young lover has replaced you,” he continues. “Digital technology is the young lover.” After going almost a year without a projected image, this viewer doesn’t need a reminder of the importance of movies as something more than just pixelated feed-through to television. But I thank the Gods of Cinema for Talking About Trees, first-time director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s profoundly fervent documentary on the subject.
Moviegoing as we know it perished years ago in Sudan — as a result of Islamist censorship, not natural causes. Since 1989, cinematic divergences have been placed on the endangered species list, with film production scotched, the National Film Institute shuttered, and movie theatres abandoned. But that’s not enough to stop semi-retired filmmakers Ibrahim Shaddad, Suleiman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi, and Manar Al Hilo, collectively known as the Sudanese Film Group (SFG), from trying to resurrect the dead. Their goal is to restore cinema to its former glory by dusting off an outdoor amphitheater — appropriately named The Revolution Cinema — and making it ready to once again bring artistic enlightenment to the masses.
Armed with a questionnaire and a box of Bic pens, our four historians — looking to find what type of film would attract the biggest crowd for their first free public screening — seek the advice of a group of soccer players milling about the front of the Revolution, some of whom have never attended a cinema. Anyone who has ever booked a revival program will no doubt wince when they hear, “There’s an audience for classics, but start with American action films.” Credit the team with the wisdom to overlook comic book slobbery, though; the locals appear to speak fluent Tarantino. After the polling, Django Unchained is chosen to be the opening night attraction.
The cadre of dedicated colleagues, recognizing the almost certain impossibility of the undertaking, approach their calling with equal parts trepidation and humor. The closest most Americans get to an outdoor moviegoing experience is a drive-in theatre, where the two biggest distractions are ambient light or airplane engines that momentarily drown out the dialogue. There are eight mosques within earshot of the Revolution, all equipped with electronic public address systems. Imagine periodic bursts of “Allah is great” punctuating a picture, as evidenced during a practice run-through of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
The meaning behind the title is twofold: first, a tree planted outside the offices of the SFG with roots that grow and symbolize a new beginning for cinema. Second, Manar’s quote from the Bertolt Brecht poem, “To Those Born Later” references a time when “to talk about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors.”
We never come face-to-face with the “morality police” that act as a roadblock to success. Nor are we vulnerable in the face of a sea of talking heads. Gasmelbari instead keeps his camera at a distance, valuing the importance of friendship and going to the movies over futile hostility. Fortunately, that doesn’t apply to television: a correspondence found in a storage locker — written by departed colleague Atef El-Tayeb “during the days of exile” — perfumes the proceedings with a hint of sublime snobbery as we return to a yesteryear when big and small screens didn’t commingle. The letter, dated 1985, speaks of a day “when ignorant tyrants have torn our past to shreds and emptied out lives of substance.” Not satisfied with his then-current standing in Egyptian cinema, he complains of punching a clock, “desperately trying to escape the clutches of television.” One wonders what El-Tayeb would have thought of living in the age of the Netflixing of cinema.
To anyone who has ever projected film, or sat in the audience and silently cursed out a projectionist’s glaucomatous job performance, or fallen in love in the dark hard enough to rush home and call everyone in the phone book to boast of their latest cinematic affair, and to those for whom going to the movies is as vital as the next breath they draw, who can’t wait for this damned pandemic to end so that we may resume our bi-weekly pilgrimages to the multiplex, Talking About Trees is good for what ails you. The exigency of the discussion cannot be overemphasized, and the end result is unlike anything I’ve seen.
A Q&A featuring Mohamed Osman, assistant researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, follows the 1 pm screening on Friday, February 5. ★★★★★
Missing in Brooks County (2020)
This twisted tale of kindness and cruelty begins 70 miles north of the Mexican border: Brooks County, Texas is the end of the line for many migrants looking to enter the United States the hard way. After a coyote deposits them at the crossing, it’s up to the human contraband to circumvent the checkpoint and try their luck against the forces of nature. If they’re among the fortunate, they won’t be counted among the 300-600 poor souls who each year die of exposure or dehydration.
There is no protocol as to what to do when a family member turns up missing, and that’s where Eddie Canales comes in. Canales heads up the South Texas Human Rights Center, where each day, he fields calls from families hoping beyond hope that a loved one can still be counted among the living. And as the leader of the Texas Border Volunteers, veterinarian/militiaman Mike Vickers is the anti-Canales. “I’m compassionate,” says Vickers, the sound of Sean Hannity blaring in the background as the camera pans across the dozens of mounted deer heads that line the walls of his trophy room. Like duck hunters positioned deep in the tulies, Vickers and his conscripts spend their nights on the lookout for evacuees. Meanwhile, Canales maintains a system of water stations, a humanitarian gesture that Vickers laughs off as providing nesting sites for criminal activity. (Vickers does maintain a water trough for his cattle, a reservoir of sepsis from which the undocumented are free to sip.)
Canales’ efforts are frequently rewarded with “Build the Wall Now” emblazoned across the bins, or worse. Sometimes, they’re kicked apart, and the 30-foot flagpoles designed to make them visible splintered into twigs. Vickers blames the vandalism on Canales, pronouncing it a ploy on the part of the immigrant rights defender to gain sympathy for his cause.
Directors Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot follow the plights of two families desperate to find closure: Juan Salazar crossed the border to make money after his girlfriend’s father demanded that his daughter marry a better provider, while Homero Román, deported on the basis of a traffic violation, had not spoken to his family in over two years. Needless to say, the outcome for both is the same.
A discussion with director Jeff Bemiss and Clara Long, associate director, US Program, Human Rights Watch immediately follows the 7 pm screening on Thursday, February 4. ★★★