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Tall Fences, Taller Trees and film as resistance

  • 06 October 2020
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.

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