The Tree That Remembers:
Iranian expat Masoud Raouf, now living in Canada, is a producer/ director trained in art and animation. His unique take on filmmaking informs in an odd way this documentary, made for the Canadian Film Board in 2002. Raouf wants to understand the suicide of another Iranian expat, a promising college student with seemingly everything to live for. At a brief 50-minutes, The Tree That Remembers works slyly to make you think, without providing concrete answers. Though at times troubling, off-putting and unpolished, this documentary ultimately says some interesting things about the human condition.
Focusing mainly on interviews with three other expats, Raouf begins his dance around the subject. This in itself creates a bit of confusion. First, a bit of Iranian history is explored, then we learn the stories of other Iranians in Canada. Will we learn about the suicide victim? Of course, yet it's information doled out sparingly. Mostly we get a dawning sense of the corruptness of Iran's extremist government, considering the fact that each interview subject was unjustly imprisoned and basically tortured for attempting to think and speak freely.
Raouf ingeniously evokes prison conditions through the use of sketched-in sets assembled on a stage. We see how women were made to sit without touching the walls in coffin-sized cells for 15 hours at a time. The simple sets and lighting bring an austere beauty to these scenes. And of course worse suffering is discussed. Where the documentary fails - if it can be said to do so - is in other early scenes. The subjects tell their involved stories with Iranian accents and foreign sentence structures. The ridiculous fact, that I'm not ashamed to admit, is that much of this was really difficult for me to understand, and frankly had me losing interest. Essentially I felt literally and figuratively lost for the first 20 minutes. If subtitling or closed captioning were available on this DVD I'd have no problem, but I really felt I was working too hard to comprehend things, including resultant confusion created by trying to relate what I was hearing with what I expected to be learning about.
Of course Raouf actually has a method to his madness, eventually probing deeper into his subject's feelings, revealing the depth of effect the Iranian regime has on its citizens. Their tears don't seem to stop, and the extreme efforts they went to in order to be smuggled out of Iran indicate a profoundly scary corruptness inherent in parts of the culture. It's quietly galvanizing material hindered a bit by documentary-standard gloomy chamber music. On the other hand, Raouf includes his own animation, an act that makes up for the inclusion of other documentary clichés.
Effective documentaries allow viewers to begin questioning things, even while leading them to certain conclusions. Raouf made me question the benefit of certain documentary subjects, many of which seem dire and depressing. Raouf's opinion of Iran's longstanding regime - and many others will probably agree - is that it sucks. I just have to wonder when it might become necessary to present some positive messages so dutiful documentary viewers won't expect evil to be constantly endemic to our world. Still, this seems to fit Raouf's message. The director makes it clear that the suicide victim really wanted to die, (he made a second attempt when his rope broke) and he really wanted the world to know it, since he hung himself from a tree next to a busy highway. With interviews that seem tangential to the nominal documentary subject, Raouf implies or allows you to infer the role of Iran in this death. With an interviewee's trenchant statement about her first years in Canada, "We're not sharing. Who cares?" we can get depressed, or, as Raouf quietly hints, I suppose we can seek out hope for ourselves.
Non-anamorphic 1.66:1 letterboxed video cheats those with larger flatscreens, compacting information to a little rectangle in the middle of your screen. The image is otherwise fairly average in most respects. Colors are rich and dark areas pretty deep, but detail levels and crispness of image are nothing to shout about. Luckily, compression artifacts don't seem to be a problem.
Dolby Digital Stereo Audio is just fine, not terribly remarkable, but perfectly acceptable. The dynamic range is well represented by those sonorous 'cellos and the like making things seem all dour. Dialog, tough as it is to at first easily understand, is mixed up front and doesn't fight the music.
About The Tree That Remembers is a 14-minute featurette that talks a bit about the project's inception before revisiting one of the interview subjects, getting her reaction to the finished film, and simply delving more into her reality. A four-page text profile About The Director/ Producer, a short, self-navigated Photo Gallery, (simply stills from the movie) and a 20-page critical Essay about the movie (along with a page of Web Links) constitute the extras.
Masoud Raouf's The Tree That Remembers, a short documentary about an Iranian expat's suicide, has other things on its mind. An examination of this victim's inability to escape his past is more forcefully an indictment about what's been going on in Iran since the 1970s, and a statement about isolation and the human condition. While deciphering accents and syntax (minus captioning or subtitles) creates a barrier to entry, you'll eventually get past it to find a unique, downbeat documentary that asks more questions than it answers. It's specialized material that certainly merits a Rent It for viewers dedicated to such subjects.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com