(Lebanon 2021; Dir: Ramzi Bashour)

The Trees

All-transcending vocation

review by Bo Alfaro Decreton

The Trees

length: 23

year of production: 2021

country of production: Lebanon

director: Ramzi Bashour

production: Ramzi Bashour

director of photography: Alfonso Herrera-Salcedo

editing: Hasan Hadi

sound: Mohamad Khreizat

cast: Nadim Shartouny

festivals: International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) 2021, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2021, Melbourne International Film Festival 2021, Leiden Shorts 2022

© images: 'The Trees' (Ramzi Bashour)

Bashir, a Lebanese plant scientist, is called home for the funeral of his father. The restraining nature of social compliance does not match with his nonchalant, restless soul, giving himself and his family members a hard time, especially when he notices that the family's olive trees suffer from a strange disease. Once seen it cannot be unseen and Bashir’s search for the origin of their poor condition becomes an obsession for which everything, the funeral rituals as well, must give way, much to his family’s chagrin. Life’s not only about doing good, it’s about doing good at the appropriate time.

In his second short, Ramzi Bashour seeks the clever imbalance between an overwhelming passion for one's profession and an acceptable way of mourning. The sharp dark comedy uses recognisability to portray intrafamilial differences, and to illustrate how difficult it is to get around them — especially at times when people live closely together, such as in the aftermath of the loss of a loved one. In times of grief we should feel most connected to those around us, though this can be a particularly hard task, as we all mourn so differently.

Bashour provides an unflinching look at funeral rituals (including less romantic details) using static frames and a preference for symmetry, a contrast that works particularly well with the main character's very dynamic way of being. ‘The Trees’ draws its energy not only from a strong lead but equally so from its appeal to quirkiness, both in the editing and its depiction of the practical side of death.

Death being both the most clear-cut certainty and the most enduring question mark, it’s not surprising that Bashour links it to a quest. The passing of a loved one can invite us to stand in the present in a very grounded way — in great sadness but also in gratitude for the time shared. Obviously, it can just as easily open a gateway to escape, to a place deep inside us (call it memory?) or into a focus point far beyond. Although said ways of mourning are in reality not so separate. In an interview, Bashour, who grew up in Beirut, mentions being inspired by Greek orthodox funerals which are given a vital role in the film as their rituals structure his presence in his childhood home. This also leads him back to age-old dynamics with his mother, a situation probably familiar to many but one that feels painful because of his apparent ignorance of her suffering. Hence, Bashour shows that you can do both good and harm at the same time. Which is recognisable to anyone who is, say, human.

Guided by his vocation, Bashir listens to the sick trees as they make themselves heard. Or, as Hermann Hesse puts it in ‘Wandering: Notes and Sketches’ (2020): “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” Though Bashir focuses his efforts on the olive trees and does find the cause of their condition, his attention is not undivided. ‘The Trees’ shows the interconnectedness of nature and humans, but would have gained in strength if it had allowed itself some space to wander, as the film seems too much caught up in its rigid storyline and therefore presents characters that feel rather one-sided. Bashour offers a beautiful counterpoint to that, when Bashir who, weighed down by his doubts and sadness, stands under a tree and almost becomes part of it, at least visually. That same sense of serenity is poignantly captured when Bashir's entourage and family are gathered at the cemetery for his father's burial, at nightfall and among the trees. These moments of rest, when the film is catching its own breath, are most moving.

At its best, ‘The Trees’ is a reminder that grief is messy and all over the place. Bashour creates an interesting crossroads where the spectator is torn between whether Bashir is guided by this all-transcending vocation, the dire need for a distraction from a direct and long-lasting confrontation with his father's death (the supposed postponement of mourning as the mourning process itself) or him being a true embodiment of our times by not being able or allowed to keep work separate from his private life.

(The following two paragraphs contain spoilers.)

Heartbreaking for any nature lover, however, is when Bashir discovers that the only way to get rid of the virus is to quarantine the infected area and burn the affected trees. The film ends on a mysterious yet predictable note, hinting at some sort of purification. At night, Bashir follows the beyond nocturnal sounds he hears outside. By capturing the view of a fire raging through the mountainsides out of focus, Bashour maximizes the poetic effect of this last scene in a powerful way.

A week after wrapping the shoot, the film’s final mysteriousness was caught up by harsh reality. As the very related subjects that Bashour tackles in 'The Trees', our relationship with nature and with death, are of permanent relevance. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Bashour revealed: “Part of the country [where the film was shot] caught fire, which is by now a thing that happens every summer all over the world. We budgeted for it, but we could have shot actual fire. Sadly.”