Double interview: The Forest Maker and his director

Tony Rinaudo uses conventional reforestation methods to plant millions and millions of trees – and Volker Schlöndorff is filming a cinema documentary about the Australian. The outcome so far: An educational film on behalf of the BMZ (Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Schlöndorff and Rinaudo shooting in Ghana. © World Vision
Schlöndorff and Rinaudo shooting in Ghana. © World Vision

Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

One morning in Potsdam. Volker Schlöndorff walks upstairs to the first floor of his house, the director has a meeting with his latest star – Tony Rinaudo. But the 63-year-old Australian is an agronomist, not a film actor. Just before 9 a.m., Schlöndorff makes the call to Melbourne, where it is 5 p.m. They have arranged a Skype meeting: Due to the coronavirus, filming has been put on hold and further plans for the film have to be made virtually. Actually, it’s two films. The big film for the cinema is a documentary about Rinaudo. And the second is an educational film that Schlöndorff is producing on behalf of the BMZ – so it can be shown at workshops to promote the methods for which Rinaudo received the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018: “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration”, a reforestation technique that was used to grow millions of trees, particularly in Africa. The trick: Shrubs are nurtured from existing tree stumps, roots and seeds and grow into trees. A man in a thick jumper appears on the screen. The title of a book about him: “The Forest Maker”.


Schlöndorff: Tony, why do you not like the title “Trees of Hope” for our cinema film? I think it’s good…


Rinaudo: That was originally the title of my new book. I like it! But my publisher said it sounds a bit childish…


Schlöndorff:…what’s wrong with that?


Rinaudo: Nothing. But then my publisher suggested: “My Trees of Hope”.


Schlöndorff: That’s awful!


Rinaudo: I know, they are not my trees, it sounds arrogant. So I googled it and unfortunately there is already a book with the title “Trees of Hope” - and my publisher wants a personal title. So I gave in.


Schlöndorff: I will definitely not be calling the film “My Trees of Hope”. “Trees of Hope” seems common enough to me that the title can be used several times. We’ll figure it out!


Rinaudo: Well, “The Forest Maker” would be fine too, like the first book about me.


Schlöndorff: It is still your nickname. And better than “Mother Theresa”. When can we continue filming? Do you have an idea when you will be able to leave Australia with the coronavirus situation?


Rinaudo: It is improving, I'm hopeful. But now the covidiots are demonstrating - hopefully the situation will not get worse. There are a fair number who think it is just a hoax and are not taking care.


Schlöndorff: It is the same here. So there is still uncertainty about getting visas to leave Australia and enter Africa.


Rinaudo: It will be uncertain for the rest of the year.


Schlöndorff: Maybe I will still go to Senegal in 2020, not to film, but for a scouting tour. I may give out a few handheld cameras. By the way, the thirty-minute educational film that the BMZ ordered will be finished soon. Last night, the editor sent me the final scenes, now I just need to work on the colour and the tone.


Volker Schlöndorff with Tony Rinaudo and locals in Niger. © World Vision
Volker Schlöndorff with Tony Rinaudo and locals in Niger. © World Vision

In his 81 years, Schlöndorff has filed 37 films, produced many documentaries and in the nineties, he was chief executive of the Babelsberg film studio. To the left of his desk is a large dresser that he took from shooting “Circle of Deceit” in Beirut in 1981. The fine wooden mosaic still shines. And outside the window is vast green foliage.


Rinaudo: Excellent. Now that travelling is more difficult, this could be an important tool.


Schlöndorff: Yes, as part of a workshop. It wont be enough to send the video to villages and then everyone will use FMNR.


Schlöndorff: The film could be shown to farmers by farmers who have already had experience with FMNR.


When will your main film about Mr Rinaudo be finished?


Schlöndorff: If it hadn’t been for corona, it would be finished. But because of the travel restrictions, it probably wont be finished until next summer.


How did you get to know each other?


Rinaudo: It was at a small party. I had just received the Alternative Nobel Prize in Stockholm and had a stop in Berlin on my flight home.


Schlöndorff: We are both active in World Vision – and in my eleven years there, I had never had anything to do with his trees. But I was invited to a small party with him at an Italian restaurant. And then it just clicked.


What did?


Schlöndorff: I immediately thought that I have to make a film about him. I am an Aries, so I am impulsive: How is it possible that so few people know about this world revolution that this Rinaudo has started? I need to make propaganda for this.


Did you decide this between courses?


Schlöndorff: While drinking my coffee. The next morning, I knocked on Tony’s hotel room door with a piece of paper - and we signed a preliminary contract. I was convinced the investors would be lining up at our door. But it took a year for us to get the first minimum funding for the film.


Rinaudo demonstrates in Ghana how to circumcise a bush. © World Vision
Rinaudo demonstrates in Ghana how to circumcise a bush. © World Vision

Why is that?


Schlöndorff: It’s a mystery to me.


The successes of the FMNR method are considered a green pillar in agriculture and a hugely important concept against the spread of deserts: In Niger alone, 200 million trees were grown using this method and in south Ethiopia, 27 square kilometres of land have been reforested in the Humbo region. According to the “Welt”, an expert from the “World Resources Institute” says this is the “greatest environmental change in Africa in the last hundred years”. One that can be seen from space: Satellite images from today show green where there used to be desert.


Mr Rinaudo, what did you think when Mr Schlöndorff suggested making a film about you?


Rinaudo: It was a strange feeling but I was delighted all the same: I am getting older and can no longer travel to every country that would benefit from FMNR. So, of course, I asked myself: What will happen to me? Will this guy direct me here and there? But then outside in the field, we quickly became friends. It is great working with him.


Schlöndorff: I also didn’t ask him to do film as a director, but as an observer. I only gave a few suggestions on some small details, otherwise I hardly intervened in what Tony did. I documented. And I learned a lot about Africa and about agriculture.


What did you learn?


Schlöndorff: How important trees are, for example. In areas like in Niger, trees are needed to stop soil erosion and soil degradation. In the shade, agriculture is more successful. And in Ethiopia, forests play a very important role: Water comes back, animals return - and the famers benefit from this.


How so?


Schlöndorff: Around 600 million people still live in villages in African countries and operate small-scale farms on a hectare or less. The aim is to sustain this. Do we want dead villages where no one works, like in Brandenburg? All our different cultures come from villages. This is where the trees come into play: They enable more and better farming, which increases the likelihood that people will not move to the cities.


Rinaudo: Most people do not leave their villages by choice. If they have work there that feeds them as well as solutions for the future of their children and electricity, then they stay. These megacities are certainly not an alternative.


What are the consequences of Africa having less trees than 50 years ago?


Tony Rinaudo during the filming in Ghana. © World Vision
Tony Rinaudo during the filming in Ghana. © World Vision

Rinaudo: Well, when I was in Niger for the first time in 1980, almost all of the trees were gone. Agriculture was almost impossible: Nothing stopped the strong winds and the seedlings did not survive the drought. But trees are like fertiliser: They attract birds and other animals that fertilise the ground. Trees are also a source of water because their roots pull it up from deep in the soil and release it to the surface at open areas. Traditionally they offer a lot: they are like a supermarket, a hardware store and a medicine cupboard in one.


What made you think of FMNR?


Rinaudo: It is not a new idea, it is hundreds of years old, including in Germany: When a tree is cut down, the germination process begins. There was also this tradition in Africa, but the knowledge disappeared with colonialism and modern agricultural concepts. There were even programmes from the World Bank and US Aid that funded the removal of tree stumps. I began growing new trees in Niger for two and a half years. But most of them died, which frustrated me greatly. Then one day, I drove my pick-up with lots of tree seedlings to a village. On the way, I saw a bush in the distance, which piqued my interest. I let a little pressure out of the tyres to get more surface area in the sand and drove up to it. I had travelled this route for two and a half years and never stopped. Now I did. From the leaves I saw: It isn’t a bush, it’s a tree! I looked around and saw shoots coming out of the sand, the desert was hiding roots. And it suddenly hit me - we don’t need big projects or technological voodoo: Everything we need is already here. It just needs some TLC.


This epiphany – is it comparable with the moment when you decided in Autumn 2018 in a restaurant to make a video about Mr Rinaudo, Mr Schlöndorff?


Schlöndorff: Not really. For me it was much more frivolous. People always ask me: Why did you do this film or that film - even with film adaptations. Usually people approach me with the ideas, or I remember a book that I read ten years go and think: That is exactly the situation I find myself in. There is always coincidence at play. So why Tony? I don’t know. Maybe I had nothing going on. But I was always interested in agriculture. I grew up in the country and we often went with my father when he visited farmers as a doctor. Back then, 70 years ago, a farmer had only one hectare of land, which was divided up into parcels. He had one cow for milk and for the plough and I still remember how often his wife and daughter walked next the cow to keep it moving in a straight line. When I go to Africa today, I see the same images as I saw in Germany 70 years ago. This means: The situation can be improved, no German farmer uses a plough today.


Did you also see tree care like the FMNR technique in your childhood?


Schlöndorff: I don’t remember. But I once had a small farm in Sicily with 400 olive trees. One year, spring came very early, water rushed into the trunks, but then a terrible frost came with minus ten degrees; all the trees died. They were cut down and new trees were planted, but a tree needs 20 years until it bears fruit. Then something happened: Seedlings came out of the old trunks. Not just one or two, but ten, 15! The farmers let three or four of them grow and bound them together like a bush - which also makes it easier to pick the olives.


So the farmers in Sicily adapted to the new situation. And what do the farmers in African countries say when you explain reforestation to them, Mr Rinaudo?


Rinaudo: At first, they called me the crazy white farmer. Their whole lives, they thought a good farmer is a clean farmer who would cut down the trees. Around the world, most farmers think that the trees are competing with their crops - and they are more likely to think that when they are hungry. What’s more, the trees in Niger were not privately owned due to land rights. The government issued a law that trees are the property of the state and that those who cut down trees will be punished. This made people liable for the trees on their land - and to get out of this responsibility, they quickly removed them. But farmers learn from each other. I convinced a few to try it with trees - the harvests were good and other farmers followed. Now the harvests have doubled, in addition to the food and medicine they offer.


Volker Schlöndorff and Tony Rinaudo with their camera team. © World Vision
Volker Schlöndorff and Tony Rinaudo with their camera team. © World Vision

So the trees were not really a rival for the farmers?


Rinaudo: The farmers can decide for themselves which trees they allow to grow, how many and how they cut them. They have control. Our method does not cost anything, is quick and can be widely used - this is essential in the face of climate change.


Tackling hunger is a big global problem. Some would say: We need more agriculture and more space - not forests. What would you say to these people?


Rinaudo: It is wrong to assume that large-scale monocultures are the most productive. Biologically diverse cultivation is a much more promising way to tackle hunger, it offers so much, which is exactly what small-scale farmers need for their food and their lives. In Niger, the grain harvest was originally 300 kilograms per hectare and year. With FMNR, the harvest can be increased ten fold and without watering or using machines, which poor farmers can hardly afford.


Schlöndorff: Tony, how will you use our educational film to convince farmers of the method?


Rinaudo: This is a quicker and more cost-effective way to reach the people - after all I cannot go to every village. Online training is increasing everywhere in African agriculture. I am seeing that people are more frequently visiting our FMNR website. Here, this kind of film can very clearly illustrate the method. And of course during workshops in the villages.


Schlöndorff: Yes, we could first show the film and then go through any questions that arise - chapter by chapter. Initially, I thought the film would be over two hours long. But it can be easily compacted. We could show it in intervals - like a salami, the thinner it is cut, the better it tastes.


Tony Renaudo explains his FMNR method in Ethiopia © World Vision
Tony Renaudo explains his FMNR method in Ethiopia © World Vision

It is now the evening in Melbourne and Rinaudo’s wife Liz appears on the screen to say hello. The three continue talking, about the fires in California, which have already destroyed a forest area the size of Saxony, “I could cry,” says Rinaudo, and about the trees in the Berlin Grunewald, which have also seen better days. Finally, Schlöndorff says that he will definitely finish the cinema film about Rinaudo, even if the funding is not yet guaranteed. “It will be fine,” he says. “It has to be.”

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