Tall Fences, Taller Trees and film as resistance



Tall Fences, Taller Trees, directed by Dutch-based Iranian filmmaker, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, is a companion to Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, which Sarvestani co-directed with Kurdish-Iranian writer and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani. Despite the daunting challenges the collaborators faced in making Chauka, the film was a triumph, feted in film festivals worldwide after its release in 2017. It documents the lives of men in the prime of their life, stuck in a hellish limbo — an essay on tedium, the erosion of hope, and the destruction of the spirit.

Main image: Film poster Tall Fences, Taller Trees Sarvin Productions/Visions du Réel

On its most basic level Tall Fences, Taller Trees documents the making of the first film, but it is far more than that. It opens with Sarvestani as an aspiring filmmaker, juggling fatherhood with the demands of his craft. He lives in an apartment in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. His wife, Lianne, is the breadwinner, and Sarvestani, the househusband. He cooks, cleans, shops, and cares for Setareh, his infant daughter.

Setareh is a year old, when, in February 2015, her father participates in a workshop in Barcelona with revered Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. Inspired by his mentor, Sarvestani dreams of making a film about the sea. It evokes thoughts of loss and separation; he still grieves the passing of his father. ‘It was like a tsunami for me,’ he reflects. He hopes to transform his project into a cinematic essay on children and their deep love of the sea.

The filmmakers’ second child, Vincent, is born in late 2015. The demands of child rearing are overwhelming. Sarvestani contemplates giving up filmmaking until his children are older. He Skypes his mother, now living in Canada. She is uncompromising. After all, she had survived persecution, the loss of her job in Iran, to become an artist while rearing seven children. To give up his vocation would be an act of moral cowardice, she tells her son. You must find a way. The challenge, she advises, is how you manage time.

The filmmaker hears of asylum seekers incarcerated on Nauru. He asks himself: would the detained children view the sea with love or as a prison? He reaches out across the oceans via the airwaves, and finds Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Manus Island since August 2013. Unlike Nauru, there are no children being held on Manus. But there are 900 detained men living in despair.

Sarvestani and Boochani begin a dialogue via voice messages moving back and forth between Eindhoven and Manus. They never meet in real time. Sarvestani mentors Boochani in the art of camerawork and direction. They find a way to transmit Boochani’s smart-phone video images across the seas.


'But there is resistance; and it takes many forms. We see Boochani leaning against the cyclone fence, back turned, gazing at the sea. Waiting. Watching. Singing for the children of Manus.'


 We see the friendship and collaboration between Boochani and Sarvestani unfold. We listen in on the voice messages that flow between them, often interrupted midstream due to technical difficulties. Sarvestani turns the camera on himself. He is forensic and disarmingly honest in depicting the relentless demands of his work as a househusband. The camera also captures sublime moments of wonder and humour in the interplay between Sarvestani and his children.

A third child, Robin is born. Sarvestani’s home workload increases. Heeding his mother’s counsel, he grabs every opportunity to enter Boochani’s world and progress their project. To depict this tension Sarvestani cuts between scenes of domesticity at home, to footage shot by Behrouz on Manus. The two men live in vastly different surrounds. Whilst Sarvestani struggles to find time for filmmaking between his daily chores, the men on Manus are losing time, wasting the prime years of their life in purgatory. Some are being driven to suicide.

But there is resistance; and it takes many forms. We see Boochani leaning against the cyclone fence, back turned, gazing at the sea. Waiting. Watching. Singing for the children of Manus. We hear the dark-humoured tale of Boochani’s tree-climbing act of defiance — the moment he discovers he is a poet. Perched at the top of the tree, he demands music, Beethoven, and his human rights, from the guards gathered below him.

Tall Trees, Taller Fences gathers momentum and intensity. The rhythms become more urgent. Sarvestani and Boochani decide to focus their efforts on the maximum-security prison named Chauka. We hear of the murder of Kurdish-Iranian detainee, Reza Barati, and the death of Hamed Khazaie through medical neglect. We begin to comprehend the insidious nature of the abuse. The collaboration is flourishing, the first film is taking shape.

Sarvestani interweaves a third thread into the new film. His brother, Aram, is an accomplished musician and composer steeped in the classical traditions of both Iran and the West. We see him in Iran, as a young boy, playing piano, developing his craft, and years later, at work as a composer and conductor. He is also an uncle who Arash calls upon to help calm his restless first child, and to inspire in her a love of music.

Aram is drawn into his brother’s project. He begins to compose a piece that underscores the film’s final movement: ‘Requiem for a beautiful soul’, dedicated to Manus Island detainee, Hamed Shamshiripour, an Iranian national. Boochani sends a transcript of Shamshiripour’s haunting monologues to Sarvestani. His words are performed verbatim by actor Ahmad Abbasi Tehrani.

At the core of Shamshiripour’s ramblings there is a terrifying logic at work. They reflect the chaotic thoughts of a man who has been ground down by a Kafkaesque system and robbed of his sense of self. He paces the forest. ‘One shouldn’t play games with people,’ he proclaims. ‘I want my rights,’ he insists. He demands respect. He asserts his individuality, his difference: ‘I am a flower with a sweet fragrance, a flower that speaks beautifully… I love beauty. I want to live a beautiful life. I don't want to cut the stem of the flower, but there are many who want to pull it out by the roots.’

Aram’s requiem matures in rehearsal; the finished piece complements Shamshiripour’s mesmerising lament. At the same time, Sarvestani continues to tend his infants, while persisting with his other life as a filmmaker. He works late into the night, in harness to the time zone of Manus, and rises early morning to resume his house duties.


'Tall Fences, Taller Trees is a cinematic concerto in three movements. The images, soundtrack, editing, original score, and multiple storylines, work in concert to produce a work of artistry.'


‘Last night I had a horrible dream,’ he tells Boochani. ‘I dreamed I was in the prison camp. I was one of the people in the prison. I was there to film, but it was really frightening.’

‘Arash, of course you were there,’ quips Behrouz. ‘You’re living in this place for quite some months. You should have had this nightmare earlier.’

As the first film, Chauka evolves, Behrouz Boochani remarks: ‘This movie must be made. The film is very important because this must be documented in history…  I’m really glad you contacted me at this very critical time’.

 The same can be said of the new film. Released at a time of global instability, and a steep increase in the mass movement of displaced and stateless peoples, it echoes and compliments Boochani’s award winning book, No Friend but the Mountains, published in 2018. This is film as an act of resistance, set against the chores of daily life, and a profound meditation on exile and separation. It never forgets its central purpose: to bear witness to the plight of men, women and children who had set out on perilous journeys in search of a better life, as had countless generations before them.

Tall Fences, Taller Trees is a cinematic concerto in three movements. The images, soundtrack, editing, original score, and multiple storylines, work in concert to produce a work of artistry. ‘The Pacific Solution’ saga has found a new way of being exposed. Those who have suffered the injustice — some of whom now remain imprisoned in Brisbane and Melbourne — have had their fate memorialised.

Sarvestani dedicates the film to Shamshiripour, who, tragically, loses his life. ‘Everyone on Manus likes me, he says at one point, ‘…their trees like me, their animals like me. They love me to the moon and back.’ But this did not save him from his descent into utter despair.



Arnold Zable Photo by Hillary FinchArnold Zable is a writer, novelist, storyteller and human rights advocate. His books include Jewels and Ashes, Café Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven, Sea of Many Returns, The Fig Tree, Violin Lessons, and The Fighter. His most recent book, The Watermill, was published in March this year.

Tall Fences, Taller Trees, will have its world premiere on the independent film platform, Eventive, between 7th and 9th October.


Article images: Sarvin Productions/Visions du Réel
Image of Arnold Zable by Hillary Finch

Topic tags: Arnold Zable, Tall Fences Taller Trees, Behrouz Boochani, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, film, review



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Existing comments

There is so much dignity in this story. It's a story of courage and survival against great odds. Sadly, it is also a story of despair and death. An award-winning book and now this film document the defiance and poetry inherent in the experiences of the detainees. We can hope that many people see the film and catch a glimpse of the human spirit driving the film-makers and the author. A memorial to those lost.
Pam | 06 October 2020

Thanks for drawing our attention to this film Arnold. Coupled with our lockdown in Melbourne (albeit mild by comparison), it should sharpen our sense of 'fratelli tutti' with asylum seekers. Hopefully Pope Francis will give it his blessing too.
Pat Walsh | 07 October 2020

A great review of a film which really says something. How widely it will be seen in Australia and what effect it will have on the general population are both moot points.
Edward Fido | 08 October 2020

Will Tall trees, Taller trees, be released in Melbourne when our cinemas reopen? I do hope it will. Thanks for your information Arnold. I have read both you And Berhouz.
Elizabeth Craven | 11 October 2020


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