Snowy houses on a winter’s night. A boy traces his finger on a cold window. Very slowly, a camera tracks backwards to reveal his surroundings: a small home where his mother prepares dinner. In the opening shot of The Tree, the Tarkovsky phrase “sculpting in time” comes to mind. Moving at a slow, meditative pace, the viewer doesn’t just observe this scene but thinks and feels through it along with the director. The cold is palpable, as is the boy’s loneliness, and the camera continues to recede only to begin tracking laterally against a wall until we enter what appears to be the same home but many years later, finding an old man lying down with his dog. While nothing is made explicit, as there is hardly any dialogue in the film until its final passage, the connection between the boy and this man is clear. In a series of long takes, the man treks through his town in the middle of the night, gathering empty glass jars from doorsteps and venturing further and further, leading to a transformative encounter.
We aren’t given context but an evocative quote from Franz Kafka sets the tone:
For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie smoothly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can't be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.
Painterly, ethereal and also quite physical, we follow the man in mobile long takes as he painstakingly performs his task, the clanging together of the jars taking on a musicality, and his aching steps an enormous weight. Gorgeous images of shadowy streets, homes and landscape are rich and immersive. The seeming mundanity takes on a transcendental quality, and sounds of war heard in the night evoke a violent history—both past and present.
Shot in Sarajevo where Portuguese filmmaker André Gil Mata finished his DLA at the Film Factory, The Tree is his first fiction feature following several shorts and his feature documentary How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras (2016), which received a special mention at FIDMarseille.
I spoke with Gil Mata the night of his new film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the Kafka quote that opens the film?
ANDRÉ GIL MATA: While I’m writing something, I usually read things that have a connection to what I’m doing or trying to express. In a way it was a coincidence that I encountered that quote and I found it inspiring. I thought I should share it with the audience. It opens things in a questioning way; that sentence makes me question a lot about existence.
NOTEBOOK: It’s the only context that frames the film. We’re not told where and when the film takes place.
GIL MATA: In my mind, the starting point is a concrete historical situation. The first time I was in Sarajevo I had taken a picture of a fire and a figure next to a tree by a river, with smoke rising to the sky. When I went to develop the photograph, I realized there was no fire at all, the smoke was created by the different acidity of the two rivers mixing together. I was also struck with the faces of the people there, which appeared sadder to me than the faces back home. I was always thinking about how people there survived two wars in their lifetime, but because I have not lived through that situation I didn’t want to try and represent that subjective experience.
NOTEBOOK: So it’s more a study of the resilience of this place and the people, the evidence of time you saw in the place and the faces.
GIL MATA: And the cycle of human nature. We don’t see what we have already done and we repeat our mistakes in cycles, wars, economic crises.
NOTEBOOK: For most of the film we simply watch the man perform this one task, collecting the jars, and we can see his body is worn, that it’s a struggle to to carry them on his back, each step takes effort, but he continues. You feel a weight of time.
GIL MATA: It’s simple, one of the strongest images I saw was of the kids going to pick up water under the fire of snipers. Sarajevo is a valley, under the threat of people on the mountains, so they would need to run, carrying water back. The idea came from that image, and was about someone who no longer believes in humankind but in a ritualistic state of mind, waking up everyday, and doing what you do.
The people in those periods who face such difficult times become closer. If we were neighbors today, maybe we’d never really know each other, but in wartime we will help and need each other. I was thinking about that guy’s small role in society, collecting the jars and filling them with water for the town, the communal duty of it.
NOTEBOOK: The simplicity and singular focus of his task is tremendously moving. When a film scales down the range actions to something minuscule places importance on the smallest gestures.
GIL MATA: I agree. If you go back to Murnau’s Sunrise, of course there are a lot of things happening but they aren’t what’s important—the cinema was always about gestures. If you put more actions or story into a film you make the viewer distracted from what matters. In looking at Sarajevo, you already have so many layers of history and in front of your eyes. Carrying those bottles, the man is very small next to the whole of nature around him.
NOTEBOOK: Time, both as a theme, and formally through the duration of shots and pace of the film, is very important. You slow things down and expand time in the opening shot.
GIL MATA: I’m not very philosophical. It’s just an image that comes to my mind I want to show. The houses the boy looks out at as he draws on the window. I was always drawing on the window as a child. I want the viewer to feel the loneliness of the boy and the mother, to feel the absence of a father at war. In order to enable the viewer to think about that, I don’t want to say those words but find a way to make you feel it on your own with peace and time, to think through the film with freedom. I could convey the information in one second with dialogue but time is the only thing to create real thought. We talk a lot in life and if we were more silent we would think more and what we would say could become more important.
NOTEBOOK: And the opening shot literally transcends space and time, as you slowly track to show us the man years later, but within the same take.
GIL MATA: I don’t think time is linear, we think too much about calendars and the day tomorrow is another day—our minds are trained to think a certain way.
I found a way to move from one time to another in the shot is with a U-shape, starting the camera at the window from the boy’s POV and moving back through the room to the side and then back in the home. The crew was worried about this shot. I wanted the rooms to look the same but with many things missing, because over the years of struggle, they would have had to burn furniture to keep warm. My crew thought it would appear it would look like it was the neighbor’s house. I didn’t want to put a sign that it was the same house.
NOTEBOOK: Only three people and one dog appear in the film but we hear a lot more. Can you talk about the use of sound?
GIL MATA: Again it’s about not distracting from the main focus, and this man represents much more than a single person. I always knew I wanted the man to have a dog. I had two dogs that were very important to me and when they died I decided I couldn’t have a dog again because it hurt too much. The dog is more like a shadow of him. I wanted to use sound to create something beyond the frame you can imagine and give you a sense of what’s going on around. I hate film extras. It annoys me when there are people crossing the frame so you understand we’re in a restaurant or whatever. Like we are talking here now and there is a lot of noise and other people, but this is just me and you, I don’t care about the bartender or people sitting over there. The mother was someone I needed in frame in order to convey the most important thing in the world to the boy, because it’s the same for me. In cinema, you can use sound to give the viewer something the image cannot. Slowly together, they can take you in different directions. Only what must be in the frame is there.