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Tears, wall-to-wall
"The Tree That Remembers" hasn't a central thesis or focus

By Julian Samuel
July 30, 2002
The Iranian

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 on Iran.

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


* 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 hope.

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.

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