This witty and engaging cinephile documentary begins surreally with its subjects, four older male Sudanese film-makers, recreating the famous “closeup” scene from Sunset Boulevard. None of these directors has worked properly in years, since a military coup in 1989 triggered the collapse of Sudan’s film industry for religious and economic reasons. Now a power cut prevents them from even watching a movie, so they make do. Ibrahim Shaddad wraps a blue chiffon scarf coquettishly around his face as Norma Desmond, simpering: “I’m ready for my closeup.”
Films are oxygen for these men, and Talking About Trees follows their mission to reopen a neglected outdoor movie theatre near Khartoum and give away tickets. There are almost no cinemas left in Sudan. As plans go, it looks as rickety as the 12ft ladders they climb to scrub the crumbling walls of the cinema. The four amigos – Shaddad, Suliman Ibrahim, Eltayeb Mahdi and Manar Al-Hilo – repaint the peeling sign, print posters and canvass the local community to decide what film to show first. (The people pick Django Unchained.) They accept setbacks philosophically, with stoicism and amusement. Shaddad finds it hilarious when the general from the morality police dealing with their request for a permit gives them the runaround, disappearing off to pray for two hours.
Which is not to say Talking About Trees is laugh a minute. First-time director Suhaib Gasmelbari takes a meditative, gently observational approach here. He chooses not to directly interview the four film-makers; instead, what unfolds is a rather lovely poetic portrait of male friendship, cinephilic obsession and elegant dignity. Gasmelbari also gives us a few tantalising snippets of the films these directors made in their youth, making clear the loss to cinema it has been not to have seen more work by these remarkable men.
• Talking About Trees is released in the UK on 31 January.