Director Volker Schlöndorff in Ludwigsburg Caligari

Ludwigsburg. The Calgary Cinemas sold out, on the 1st of May. But no new fictional film is widely celebrated for its premiere — although world-renowned and Academy Award-winning film director Volker Schlöndorff has traveled there in person. “Der Waldmacher” is the name of Schlöndorff’s latest project, and this first documentary in his 50-year film career is dedicated to the works of Tony Rinaudo’s life. The Australian agronomist won the alternative Nobel Prize in 2018: with African farmers, he has been practicing and disseminating the decades-old pruning technique, which is reconstructing previously deserted and depleted landscapes in a unique way – and now in 23 countries on the African continent.

Volker Schlöndorff said he met Tony Rinaudo by chance, and was fascinated by Rinaudo and his work after only a few minutes: “So I asked him automatically if I could make a movie about him, and he accepted it on the spot.” Only six weeks later they met again in Mali, and Volker Schlöndorff was carrying his small digital camera with him. After nearly four years of work, including a delay of a year and a half due to the pandemic lockdown, Schlöndorff, best known above all for literary adaptations such as “The Tin Drum”, presents his first documentary, which he describes as a “film essay”.

Against the spread of deserts

The documentary, which runs about an hour and a half, is very similar to a novel in structure – with an introduction, several chapters with titles such as “The Poverty Trap” and an epilogue. It is interspersed with short films by other directors that highlight aspects of rural life in Africa, such as the advantages of millet over growing maize or the hard work of coal stoves.

In his film, Schlöndorff plays the suspended narrator and as an interlocutor for Rinaudo. Above all, however, Schlöndorff is a pleasingly invisible observing companion on Tony Rinaudo’s exciting journey to Africa, 40 years after the Australian first came to Niger in 1981 as a young scientist. At the time, Rinaudo wanted to fight the spread of deserts and people’s hunger, at first unsuccessfully by planting new trees. When he nearly gave up, an inconspicuous bush on the side of the road revealed a crucial transformation: he realized that the putative shrub was a tree with a root network branching widely underground—and that there were millions of such trees that lacked the correct pruning technique to grow. The rest is told quickly, even if it took decades of breathing for Rinaudo: he replanted the simple, traditional method of pruning trees and offered it to local farmers.

Friendly and honest exchange

Now, forty years later, Rinaudo and Schlöndorff meet many villagers and village elders before. They have long passed the method of pruning, through which trees and soil gradually recover, to each other. The poignant encounters between Rinaudo and his “subordinate” farmers also show what is probably his greatest talent and point to the secret of his success: it is his honest and sincere exchange, which is not educational and condescending, but always takes place on a par with farmers and villagers. “Helping people to help themselves” is what Rinaudo calls in the cinematic epilogue – and his secret recipe – pruning trees and friendly communication – has long been proven true. And this is where Volker Schlöndorff comes full circle and his somewhat free form of essay writing, which he chose for “Der Waldmacher”: “I didn’t want to lecture my audience about Africa.”

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