SIFF Production Talk - 'Memories of a Burning Tree' by Sherman Ong


Smith comes to Dar es Salaam to tie up some loose ends. He meets Link, a tourist guide, who agrees to help him. Along the way they are offered help by Abdul, a grave digger, and Toatoa, a metal scavenger, who themselves are searching for answers to their own journeys. Their search eventually leads them to realise that this is a never-ending journey of dreams and disappointments. With an ensemble cast of non-professional actors and an improvised script, this film is an homage to the road movie genre, where ultimately the road ends when you want it to end.


Sherman is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer and educator. Straddling fiction and documentary, his films were exhibited in Europe, US, Brazil and Asia and have won awards in Hong Kong, Greece, Italy, Indonesia and Malaysia. He is an alumnus of the 1st Berlinale Talent Campus 2003 and has premiered works at Rotterdam Int’l Film Festival, Int'l Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, International Electronic Art Festival VideoBrasil and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

He was a jury at the La Cittadella del Corto Int’l Short Film Festival, Italy 2004, Substation Reel Revolution 2006, mentor for the Panasonic Digital Filmmaking Competition 2006 and jury for Singapore International Short Film Festival 2008. He is an Associate Artist of the Substation and has conducted workshops in Singapore at Objectifs – Centre for Filmmaking and Photography, Republic Polytechnic, Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore National/History Museum, and in Cambodia together with Antoine d’Agata (Magnum) for young Asian photographers. 

He has participated in photo-media group exhibition to Singapore, Melbourne, Jakarta, Hanoi, Stuttgart and Berlin under the Goethe Institut ArtConneXions Project ( He had solo exhibitions in Amsterdam and in the Angkor Photo Festival, Cambodia, and group exhibitions in Noorderlicht Int’l Photo Festival, Netherlands, Aranjuez, Spain. In 2007, he is exhibited works at a Biennale on the Tropics in Brazil, PhotoQuai Musee du Quai Branly Paris, Singapore Art Show, and is artist-in-residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. 

What is the Forget Africa project about? 
This is the statement by Gertjan Zuilhof, progarmmer of IFFR and initiator of Froget Africa:
He was assisted by 
Inge de Leeuw, IFFR.

Forget Africa, International Film Festival Rotterdam:    

“Forgetting Africa is of course intended slightly provocatively in this case. It is not the intention to give up on Africa, to turn our backs on the lost continent. We do want to take a new look at Africa. See whether it’s possible to develop a fresh view. To see Africa for the first time as it were, also partly in a literal sense. The way economic and humanitarian aid organisations have also asked themselves for about 50 years whether they have helped and have not only evoked a call for help, that’s how questions about African cinema could also be asked afresh.

We shall first ascertain whether they are really there. Then we will become acquainted with them, because we have more than a simple suspicion that they do indeed exist. Then we’ll invite several of them to show their work within our project. A project in which the imagination of Africa is brought back to the earth.

 “They” are the still anonymous film makers from African countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. Countries that have been less visible internationally than other African countries with their cinema. Countries that seem to have fallen off the cinematographic map. Research still has to be carried out into a number of countries.

Films are made in Africa. If you include the commercial melodrama production of Nigeria, for instance, then a lot of films are made and even good films get made, even though there aren’t really very many for such a huge continent. In addition, the few serious films come from a relatively small part of the continent. North and West Africa, and it’s no coincidence these are the former French colonies, are over-represented which means that a large area is under-represented. If you look at the programming of international film festivals, and even of specialised African film festivals, you could conclude that no films at all are made in Eastern or Central Africa. Will have to see whether that is really the case and that is the aim of this project.

The Journey

The driving force within this project is an open curiosity about the position and work of film makers who work in the countries that are not really included on the map of cinematography. That doesn’t mean the work doesn’t exist, but it does largely mean that their work does not play any significant role – probably for a variety of reasons – in the international circuit of festivals were virtually every country in the world plays some kind of role.

The most effective and also the most elementary way to become acquainted with the film makers of unknown cinematographic countries in Africa is to visit them. Research in other areas of the world, for instance in the poorer countries of South-east Asia, has taught that saying for some time on the spot, making use of the network of local film makers and other film professionals, does not take long to offer a survey of what’s going on in such a country in the field of film.

Through this approach, the survey itself will form an interesting part of the project. A next step within the project also emerges from this. The open and curious encounter with local film makers gains extra significance and quality if they can in turn be introduced to film makers from other parts of the world who do have contacts and experiences in the international circuit of festivals and markets for film projects. The encounters and exchanges are fertile for both parties in this way. For the local film makers, it provides an opportunity to acquire concrete knowledge and experience from a colleague. For the visiting film maker, it is an equally concrete acquaintance with an unknown cultural world.

Several international independent film makers with a wealth of experience for their relatively young age have displayed an interesting incorporating on the project. After this text, we summarise their names with a concise description of their lives and work.”

How did you seek help?
I made contact w another Tanzanian, Hamis Mtingwa who also attended the Berlinale Talent Campus. From him, I got to meet his other classmates in University of Dar Es Salaam who are in the fine arts faculty which incl film, theatre, performing, painting, etc. That's how I found Smith, the young man who was looking for a grave. Smith is studying acting/theatre. And Peter Mbwago, who eventually became my assistant dir and co-writers together w Hamis. They all just graduated after we finished shooting. My arrival coincided w their submission of the final year project which was great cos then they have time to work w me on the film. Edgar Chatanda and Malto Tambi are two other classmates who were part of the crew.

I also made contact with the Goethe Institue in Dar es Salaam. Another German filmmaker Uli Schueppel, also on this project, was already in Dar shooting. Link was his guide. And of course, Gertjan meeting me at the airport lessen the disorientation of arriving in a strange city and  made my arrival more pleasant.

And how did you arrive at this story of yours? (Though I suspect the story evolved as you were making the film itself)
I went to Tanzania w another idea of a story but I junk it when I got to Dar es Salaam. 
The story was conceived after I had an audition with amateur theatre actors who live in the same suburb as Link Reuben, my guide in Dar. Link works as tourist guide and a painter. It all started when I asked him to take me to his neighbourhood and meet his neighbours. When I met him, he was living w his uncle who runs a cosmetics shop and does manicure/pedicure for women.

The actors collective is like a loose grouping managed by Big Willie and his younger brother, Raymond. They make stories like afternoon soaps using dv cameras and edit them into VCDs, and sells them thru distributors in the city. 
Link brought me to a cemetary near his home and as we were walking, he told me that some of the crosses on the graves are missing cos they were taken by people who sells them as scrap that planted the seed of the story. We were just taking a walk in the cemetary and talking about general things. And the Christian and Muslim cemetaries are just next to each other. So I decided to have a character looking for a grave and then everything fell into place at the audition. So it was the 'dead' that actually gave me the story and I was just the medium who channelled the stories onto the screen. 

So after the audition, I sat down w Peter and Hamis to write a structure and script in point form in 2 days. This was the blue print for the film - 50 scenes and each scene abt 2 mins. So we had a script, "a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order".

What were your initial fears regarding the success of the production when you first arrived in Tanzania?
I went there w an open mind and didn't have any expectations. Very much like when I went to Japan and then made Hashi.

I am sure I could make something in Dar. There is always drama in the most mundane of things...eating , drinking, crossing the road, getting stuck in a jam. And of course, a bit of luck and a truly wonderful guide, Link - who made it all happen.

Does Smith represent you, the filmmaker, in some way, since he is also trying to find his way around.

No. I had an audition w Hamis' classmates and decide to cast Smith when I found out through my interview that he lost his mother and sister in succession to malaria about a year before. So i felt he would have the emotional temperament to carry the character through and his search for some closure. But I think we are always searching for something as we move along in life...because we all have desires and dreams.

How did you manage to get people to act in your film for free? I feel this is sometimes the irony of wealth. In Singapore where life is stable and comfortable, it is actually harder to get people to act.
It wasn't for free, that was a factual error. I only met Gertjan the first 4 days in Dar and then he left to go to another African country. When I told him I made a feature, he thought I must have really squeezed the budget. 

Actually all the actors got paid equivalent to half a month's salary (of an general worker/employee in a hotel) for 2-3 days of shooting. It wasn't much but still that they could use to tide them over. In fact, except for Smith, the others are unemployed or day-rate workers, Toa Toa attends primary level schooling at  a private school and helps out as a cameraman for Big Willie. Abdul(gravedigger) writes short stories for books/magazines, which is not very often.

Mariam(gravedigger's love interest), a single mother, cooks some food at home, puts them in a bucket and sells them to construction site workers. Grace was taken out of school by the family, presumably because they can't afford it. Miriam (Toa Toa's girlfriend) and Smith are looking for a job.

In fact, the payment was the first thing I had to discuss before the actors agree to be in the film. In Dar, everything is about money, you need to pay someone (almost like a local head/leader) in charge of an area, or ask politely for permission to shoot. So most of the time, I was an exchange student at the university making a short project about Dar and the people. 

And we even had a wrap party by the beach w food cooked by Link's Aunt, who played his Aunt in the film.
I am happy that the film has helped to make a change in the actors lives as they now have the opportunity to go for auditions for other tv/ video projects. And ome money from the production budget was used to fund Toa Toa's school fees for another year.

I don't think there is a big difference between Dar and Singapore; regardless of economic level, everyone still grapples w the discomforts and crises of daily life because we are never satisfied or contented. 

In some sense, Dar feels very much like South East Asia/Indonesia...the tempo of the city and temperament of the people. 

How long was the shoot? How many people were in your production team, I would imagine everyone is quite stretched on set?
We shot for about 8-10 days, a few hours a day and non-consecutive. The team is about 5-6 people, as Link and Smith also helps w the production side. We work w the limitations. Shooting w a small camera helps, Canon 5D MkII. 

What were some of the greatest challenges you met in production?
Shooting in a Muslim cemetary without a permit in a location outside of Link's neigbourhood/territory. My crew was Afraid that they woud be put in jail and fine cos the police are very strict w unauthoried filming. 

The Tanzanian goverment was really upset about a film called Darwin's Nightmare which was apparently shot without their permission and gave a totally wrong perception about Tanzania. I have not watched this film, so I can't comment further. I was told that after the film was made, everyone in Tanzania wants money whenever you point a camera at them. 

What were some of the contraints you faced in making the film and how different woudl the film be if there were no such constraints, e.g. budget, location permissions, cast etc.
The film came out of a certain set of contraints, if the conditions are different then it would be a different film. 

What are the top 5 movies you wish you'd made? (This is just a fun question, please feel free to not take it TOO seriously or intensely. And note: it's top 5 movies you WISH YOU MADE, not top 5 fave movies)
Maybe names of directors would give an indication...
Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhang-Ke, Fassbinder, Ozu.

For more on the film, you could visit the website.
Or read what Gertjan Zuilof, the Rotterdam International Film Festival Programmer had to say about the film.
Or if you want to know more about Sherman Ong, click here.

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