"The Tree That Remembers" hasn't a central thesis or focus
By Julian Samuel
July 30, 2002
Canadian-Iranian filmmaker Masoud Raouf's "The Tree That Remembers"
(directed by Masoud Raouf) offers proof that the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)
executive producer Sally Bochner is fully committed to allowing "visible minorities"
to make documentaries. This film won the Silver Award for Best Canadian Documentary
at Hot Docs, and Gold Award at Yorktown.
Raouf's effort consists of interviews with Iranian exiles who were imprisoned, tortured,
and who now live in Canada. The film is filled with wall-to-wall interviewees who
cry. Their suffering, which is supposed to touch us on a personal level, is shown
without sustained political or historical analysis except for one or two sentences
which offer the most craven criticism of Canada.
What's the point of showing us tears without exploring the international complicity
(and the silence of the corporate mass media) which has partially contributed to
the enormous suffering of Iranians? The film does not expose how western governments
(including ours) silently sell profit-making instruments of repression to Iran; the
Canadian arms industry is never mentioned, the tears flow endlessly.
In a "globalizing" world the following questions are more relevant than
ever: Did our country, Canada, support Savak and the Shah? Internationally, was Canada
sufficiently vocal in criticizing Iran? What were or are Canada's links with the
current Iranian regime? Do the NFB bosses control the content of this film? These
questions, ignored by the director, are relevant when discussing Iranian suffering
past and present.
"The Tree That Remembers" hasn't a central
thesis or focus. A suicide is tacked at the beginning and at the end for perfunctory
continuity. Moreover, the camera work is boringly traditional and the editing transpires
without a single international interconnection, and the comatose animation sections
are inserted into the film to stay the charge of "talking heads" rather
than enrich the work.
Years ago, even our gigantically pro-Israeli Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
set the suffering of the people of Iran in an almost-analytical context (Canadian
sales of weapons were not exposed, of course). Other film-makers have tackled the
same subject with more rigour. Rufia Pooya's 1980 film "In Defense of People"
elegantly exposed American support for the Shah's violence. Raouf should have studied
Pooya's work before making something that is much worse that the average CBC documentary
By not exposing Canada's role in supporting Iranian dictatorships, sentimental films
such as "The Tree that Remembers" actually perpetuate the suffering of
Iranian people; their suffering is presented as something out there in the far away
blue yonder, as something not connected to Canada. Their suffering is very much connected
to what Canada does in terms of trade relations and foreign policy.
This film does a profound disservice to the people who were and who are currently
being brutalized; it tries to be poetic rather than expose arms trade deals and bankrupt
foreign policy. I am confident that Canadians would pressure their elected politicians
to change things if they were given rational information on how Canada, in its own
small way, contributes to the suffering.
Julian Samuel Film-maker and writer Julian Samuel, has made a four- hour documentary
on Orientalism and has published a novel, Passage to Lahore (De Lahore 'Montr').
You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Canadian National Film Board's THE TREE THAT REMEMBERS
In 1992 a young Iranian student hanged himself from a tree on the outskirts of a
small Ontario town. He had escaped the Ayatollahs' regime and found refuge in Canada.
Why did he take his own life? The death hit home with his fellow countryman Masoud
Raouf. He too was part of the generation who opposed the Shah's despotic rule - only
to be cruelly persecuted by the new regime.
The National Film Board documentary The Tree that Remembers is Raouf's reflection
on the betrayal of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the tenacity of the human spirit.
The film got its broadcast debut on TVO's The View From Here on May 22, following
its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival.
Raouf assembles a group of Iranian exiles in Canada- all former political prisoners
like himself who were active in the democratic movement. Shekoufeh, petite and soft-spoken,
was confined for months in a coffin-like box. Reza, now a professor of economics,
wrote about his imprisonment in Weeping Tulips. Firouzeh was separated from her family
for years, following a 10-minute trial before a group of fundamentalist clerics.
Blending their testimony with historical footage and original artwork, Raouf honours
the memory of the dead and celebrates the resilience of the living. Framing these
accounts are scenes from Iran's recent past.
The cruel irony of history is startling in 1979 footage
of International Women's Day, where enthusiastic crowds of women take to the streets
of Tehran, walking arm-in-arm towards a better tomorrow. Having helped defeat the
brutal regime that had come to power in the 1953 CIA-backed coup, they are buoyant
with hope. How could they foresee the dark age about to engulf them?
Throughout Raouf uses his own animated artwork to create an imagined sanctuary, shimmering
Fauvist landscapes which offer luminous release from hardship and inhumanity. While
anchored in a specific history, The Tree that Remembers reflects on oppression and
survival, pouring light into a sombre universe and finding unexpected fragments of
The Tree that Remembers was written and directed by Masoud Raouf and produced
by the National Film Board of Canada. Sally Bochner is executive producer and Ravida
Din is associate producer.