Grand comme le Baobab is about standing up for your beliefs and doing what you feel is right, no matter what… To me, Grand comme le Baobab speaks to the energy and idealism of youth while portraying a very stark and realistic world where change is two steps forward and one step back, where the invincibility of youth bends beneath the harsh realities of life – but is not stamped out.” Jeremy Teicher, Director
Jeremy Teicher’s documentary – which inspired the feature length film TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE (Grand Comme le Baobab) – premiered at the American Ambassador’s residence in Dakar (photo). Grateful thanks to Dartmouth’s Dickey Center For International Understanding Lombard Public Service Fellowship and a sponsorship from Kodak.
Jeremy Teicher, Director of TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE: s
I really strove to truthfully represent the villagers and their culture, countering the one-dimensional approach taken by many other media representations of rural Africans. I wanted to avoid contributing to the “othering” of rural Africans…all the lingering, uncomfortable feelings of guilt that I’d picked up from the Western media portrayal of “poor Africans.”
My own feelings with the villagers quickly shifted to respect—respect for their culture, their optimism, and their work ethic. Respect for the students, only a few years younger than me, who were pursuing a formal education against incredible odds. The contrast between my expectations and the reality I encountered was profound. The film shares this and I hope it will spark positive cross-cultural dialogue and help us embrace our shared humanity.
Early marriage seems to be a clear-cut case of right versus wrong. The explores the multitude of perspectives on this seemingly black-and-white issue within the framework of a narrative story.
In rural Africa where the reality of poverty is at its harshest, it is the time-tested traditions – including early marriage – that are often the villagers’ only sure means of survival. Although the film’s young protagonist clearly supports the path of education rather than marriage, we come to understand that for her parents, the modern world of school is mysterious and uncertain whereas the agrarian world of marriage and farming is stable and proven, generation after generation.
By contrasting these two worldviews, the film poignantly reveals a whole family’s struggle as they try to embrace modern society while balancing their day-to-day reality in the unforgiving environment of rural Africa.
As we prepare for Montreal, we wanted to share the story of our very first screening of Grand comme le Baobab in Sinthiou Mbadane, the small Senegalese village where the film takes place. The screening began with local teachers stringing up a bedsheet on the wall of the schoolhouse. Nearly 300 villagers, including the actors and their families, waited patiently for hours as the sun set and the projector — charged with a solar panel — flickered to life. For many of the young children in the audience, this would be the first movie they had ever seen. We held our breath as this was, for us, our most important audience.
From the very first scene, the audience roared with laughter at the exhilaration of seeing their friends, family, and homes captured on screen. Initial excitement gave way to introspective contemplation and even some tears as the story progressed. When the film ended, we were surrounded by darkness. Groups of children gathered around flashlights and lanterns, discussing what they had just seen. A group of mothers came up to us, asking when they could see it again. Most importantly, the actors–our key collaborators, the people whose lives shaped the story of the film–were glowing with pride. They had seen their stories come to life.
Grand comme le Baobab builds on work I began in 2009, when I traveled to Senegal to direct an independent documentary short nominated for a Student Academy Award in 2011.
I worked with a teenager named Dior who shared a story about the girls in her village who are forced to marry between the ages of 8 and 12. As the first generation with access to formal education, Dior and her peers are divided between those whose parents sent them to school and those whose parents chose to follow the deep-rooted tradition of arranged marriage. Dior’s experience living between the world of school and the world of tradition deeply resonated with me. We worked together, along with some of the other students, to develop a fictional script that spoke to their personal experiences on the leading end of this cultural change. Through a narrative story, we felt we could most effectively capture the emotions of the old and new worlds colliding.
Grand comme le Baobab explores the tensions, quiet victories, and heartbreaks that come with this change.
I communicated directly in French to those younger cast members that spoke French, but had to rely on my local translator, who did not speak any English, to translate from French to Pulaar for the other cast members. Then I would translate any instructions into English for my American camera crew, who were unable to speak directly to my Senegalese crew. Gestures and smiles saved us.[excerpt from Jeremy Teicher’s personal diary]
On my first trip to the village almost 4 years ago, I brought with me all the lingering, uncomfortable feelings of guilt that I’d picked up from the media portrayal of “poor Africans.” These feelings dissipated as my relationship with the villagers shifted from one of pity to one of respect. Respect for the students —not so much very younger than I — who were pursuing a formal education against incredible odds; respect for the elders, who radiated an aura of peace and wisdom; respect for the wives, who seemed to always have smiles of their faces; and most of all, respect for the unbelievable determination I saw in each and every villager to develop their community. The contrast between my expectations and the reality I encountered was profound. I was deeply touched by their stories.
[excerpt from Jeremy Teicher’s personal diary]