Stefan Says So: Memories of a Burning Tree [SIFF]
If at any time I were to be given an ultimatum to have a film made given limited resources, time and in a totally unfamiliar setting, the first name to pop into mind to be in my corner, will definitely be Sherman Ong.
With three feature films already under his belt (Hashi, Flooding in the Time of Drought and now this), each of them is a testament to his tenacity and ingenuity in grabbing the bull by the horns, in digging deep and with tremendous innovation and creativity, come up with a work of art through various improvisational techniques that work like magic. You may be surprised or apprehensive about that approach, but with Sherman you’re in safe hands.
With Hashi, he crafted a tale with his actresses in a collaborative format and coxed believable performances from them, despite not speaking the language. He repeats that when venturing into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, not being able to speak Swahili, but what’s to deter a determined man? Through friends of friends and yet another collaborative effort with his assembled ensemble cast, Sherman creates a feature film that sometimes look like a documentary, and blurs the lines between fictional, created elements, with that from the cast’s experiences and what unfolds before their very eyes during the production process.
A commissioned piece by the Rotterdam International Film Festival for their programme FORGET AFRICA (which you can read more about through this blog), we embark on a journey of discovery, and through the filmmaker’s lens (interesting to note that Sherman shot this using the video function of a still camera, in HD which looks gorgeous when projected digitally) get to see locales that would otherwise not be seen because somehow, Tanzania didn’t feature in our travel plans. A trained photographer, Sherman also doubles as the cinematographer, and captured enough beautiful landscapes through its contemplative narrative long takes.
At its core, the story centers on Smith (Smith Kimaro) who is looking for his mother’s grave, and he enlists the help of local tour guide Link (Link Reuben) to assist him. This of course meant a significant story time got devoted to being set in this quest, and the graveyards.
The narrative then expands to include a gravedigger Abdul (Abdul Khalfan Malaika) and Toatoa (Khalid Saleh Bilal) a metal scavenger whose story arc includes his silent sister with the red headscarf, and his girlfriend Miriam Emanuel, who just seems to be about the only one who managed to strike at her goal and got out of her predicament.
With characters perpetually stuck in a rut they’re struggling to get out of, the film steers clear of the conventional or cliched stereotypical poverty storylines, though maintaining a bleak outlook nonetheless. There was some fleeting talk on female circumcision that got snuck in during a female to female talk, and a brief moment on an exorcism being carried out by a witch-doctor of sorts, but my favourite scenes will have to be that of role playing during drama class, where we see actors and actress wannabes being put through the training paces.
Like how the film opened with a rambling man without subtitles available since he was probably speaking using his own created language, Sherman Ong, as his feature-length filmography demonstrates so far, may be onto something quite signature in the way he crafts films using his own terms. I missed this movie by a whisker when it premiered in Hong Kong last month, and my friend Wisekwai likes it, though another friend found it to be at the other end of the spectrum.
Perhaps it’s not about the destination but indeed about the journey taken to get to this point, and I felt that the end product is but a tip of the iceberg of what could have been percolating during the production process, which you can read from SINdie.