A forest underground

Volker Schlöndorff on agronomist Tony Rinaudo and a documentary on a hidden forest

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker Schlöndorff with agronomist Tony Rinaudo in the République de Niger: "He was in Africa after the big famine in 1984. You know, the Bob Geldof [and Midge Ure organised] Live Aid concerts."
Volker Schlöndorff with agronomist Tony Rinaudo in the République de Niger: "He was in Africa after the big famine in 1984. You know, the Bob Geldof [and Midge Ure organised] Live Aid concerts." Photo: Volker Schlöndorff

Volker Schlöndorff is in New York and he presented the rarely seen director's cut of his Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or (tied with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now in 1979) and Oscar-winning film The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), starring David Bennent, based on Günter Grass's novel, and the 1981 Circle Of Deceit (Die Fälschung), with Bruno Ganz and Hanna Schygulla, during the retrospective for screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière at the Museum of Modern Art. Jean-Claude Carrière also introduced Louis Malle's Milou En Mai (May Fools), Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Luis Buñuel's La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way), and together with Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate.

Volker Schlöndorff with Anne-Katrin Titze: "This is not about the art of filmmaking, it's really a propaganda movie I'm trying to make."
Volker Schlöndorff with Anne-Katrin Titze: "This is not about the art of filmmaking, it's really a propaganda movie I'm trying to make." Photo: Josh Siegel

Josh Siegel, Curator at the Department of Film at MoMA, introduced Volker before the Saturday afternoon sold-out screening of the director's cut of The Tin Drum at Titus Theater 2. Josh then invited us upstairs to the film department offices so I could have a conversation with Volker on his latest project, a documentary on the work of agronomist Tony Rinaudo.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Can you tell me about your new project? Or is it still a secret?

Volker Schlöndorff: No, no. It's a documentary. A very timely documentary, starting with an Australian agronomist, Tony Rinaudo, who is the winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel award in Stockholm. That's how I knew him, because he worked with a charity, World Vision, where I also, for ten years I've been involved with them. For charity purposes.

Anyhow, he was in Africa after the big famine in 1984. You know, the Bob Geldof [and Midge Ure organised] Live Aid concerts. Where people were dying by the millions. And to plant trees. After a year or two he found out that 99% of the trees they planted were dying after a year or two. And he was about to give up when he realised that there was, as he calls it, a whole forest underground, meaning the roots of trees in all these now arid areas, eroded and decertified countries and places.

There were still all these root systems intact underground. And if you tap into that, and you have stems grow there - they have this powerhouse underneath and within two, three years, already you have a tree like that, which is indigenous, which is used to the climate, which has its system underneath. He and people with him help - but it's called Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration. So the farmers can do it themselves.

Volker Schlöndorff with Tony Rinaudo: "He was about to give up when he realized that there was, as he calls it, a whole forest underground ..."
Volker Schlöndorff with Tony Rinaudo: "He was about to give up when he realized that there was, as he calls it, a whole forest underground ..." Photo: Volker Schlöndorff

All you have to help them over is the first two or three years to protect these plants so that the goats don't come or that women don't cut it for wood or the leaves for fodder, or whatever. And then you have the foliage. They already re-greened six million hectares that is 12 million acres of land in Niger alone. And it is spread out over 24 countries in Africa now. The project is at very low cost, to help the farmers come over their first two years. You could re-green 7% of the world's land surface, like twice the size of China.

AKT: Wow.

VS: And it's a real project and it's not just a dream.

AKT: Why is it not more widely known?

VS: The people who are involved in it know because this has been going on for twenty years already. If you punch in on YouTube those four letters FMNR - Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, there's a dozen clips or videos. But nothing of the size this calls for - a big documentary, theatrical and streaming, everything. Like the size of The Inconvenient Truth. This is not about the art of filmmaking, it's really a propaganda movie I'm trying to make.

AKT: The forest under our feet is a great metaphor as well.

VS: Oh, it is fantastic and trees are so in now. There's books about trees everywhere.

AKT: Trees are sexy.

Josh Siegel introducing Volker Schlöndorff for the screening of the director's cut of The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Josh Siegel introducing Volker Schlöndorff for the screening of the director's cut of The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VS: Trees are sexy. There's even a German writer [Peter Wohlleben] who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees. It's a secret language because they communicate among each other. They speak to each other through the roots, through all kinds of chemical systems and processes. So that'll all be part of it. So I'm trying to find financing.

AKT: I wish you the best of luck with this. The world is dying. A story like this should be out there.

VS: The advantage is not only that hundreds of millions of people, 200 million in India alone, would not have to leave their land because they could then live again off the land. In some places in Ethiopia, it's thick forests, but mostly it is just enough trees on the land to create shade.

And then to do agriculture. Agroforestry it's called. Agriculture in the shade of the trees. And the trees stabilize the ground, meaning with storms coming, it doesn't take the top soil away. And if rain comes, which is twice a year, it doesn't wash it away; the trees stabilize it. They hold the humidity in the ground, they pump it up in time - because trees are biological pumps. What I all know now!

AKT: Yes, I'm impressed.

VS: And the leaves absorb carbon dioxide so that farmers in Ethiopia last year alone sold carbon dioxide certificates for $500,000. You know, the worst polluters can buy these certificates. So it is one of the very few hopes if mankind manages this huge-scale re-greening and of course also in the Amazon and Indonesia. Tony is right now in Indonesia. That would all be part of it. It may even bring down the temperature by a degree. It's enormous.

Coming up - Volker Schlöndorff on the director's cut of The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel).

The final screenings of the director's cut of The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) will take place on Thursday, May 16 at 1:30pm and Circle of Deceit (Die Fälschung) on Wednesday, May 15 at 4:30pm inside the Museum of Modern Art Titus Theater 2.

The Jean-Claude Carrière retrospective runs through June 16.

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