The director, Jeremy Teicher, was 22 when he began production on this film – just a few years older than the village students whose stories inspired him.
What inspired this film and how was the story developed?
Tall as the Baobab Tree builds on work I began in 2009, when I traveled to Senegal, Africa to direct an independent documentary titled This is Us nominated for a Student Academy Award in 2011.
I worked with a group of first-generation students from the small village of Sinthiou Mbadane, using pocket cameras to create short video stories about their everyday lives. One of the students, a teenager named Dior, 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.
After This Is Us was released, Dior and I kept in touch. 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.
Filming your first feature film in a rural African village. How did that go?
The filming process itself was an adventure that our cast and crew navigated as a team. Click here for a fun behind-the-scenes video. Beginning with the ritual slaughter of a goat for good luck – as recommended by the village elders – principle photography started in early July 2011 in a remote village about 2 hours south of Dakar (don’t worry, the goat was cooked and eaten later that day). The village has no electricity or running water. It is typical of rural areas, home to the majority of the African population.
As we traveled by horse cart to the village every morning, I wondered if filming my first feature length narrative at such a challenging location was an act of total naiveté. But in the end, the openness of the villagers, the beauty of the landscape, and my desire to tell this story far outweighed the challenging logistical concerns.
C’est l’afrique became our mantra. When we realized the roads were too muddy for cars so we loaded up our expensive cameras and lenses on a horse cart… c’est l’afrique! The cart driver, Simon, ended up becoming a great friend and was major player in the most adventurous night of our shoot. With the sun setting and a summer monsoon blowing in, Simon’s cart got a flat tire. We were stranded out in the village, lying down in the pitch black trying to protect thousands of dollars worth of equipment from the torrential rain dripping through the hut roofs.
What do you mean when you say that the film speaks as a voice of the young generation across the developing world?
Nearly 85% of the world’s population lives in developing countries such as the one portrayed in Tall as the Baobab Tree and 55% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa live in villages like the one in the movie.Our film speaks truthfully to what countless families in the developing world are experiencing today: the passion, frustration, and hope of young people who dream of building their futures through education. In this way, Tall as the Baobab Tree speaks powerfully as a voice of the young generation in Africa and across the developing world.
Tall as the Baobab Tree addresses the human rights issue of forced early marriage, or child marriage. How does the film portray this sensitive topic?
Despite the proven negative outcomes*, the practice of early marriage continues to persist. Tall as the Baobab Tree addresses this disconnect by exploring 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, Tall as the Baobab Tree poignantly reveals a family’s struggle to find its footing at the edge of the modern world… where questions of right and wrong are not always so black and white.
*For more information see the international organization Girls Not Brides . Note that Senegal, where we filmed, is not one of the top twenty countries where early marriage is occurring.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
In Tall as the Baobab Tree 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. Rather than contributing to the “othering” of rural Africans, my hope is that the film will spark positive cross-cultural dialogue and help us embrace our shared humanity.
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 Western media portrayal of “poor Africans.” These feelings dissipated as my relationship with the villagers quickly shifted from one of pity to one of 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. Tall as the Baobab Tree shares this reality.
Why did you film a fictional narrative instead of handling this as a documentary?
What differentiates this film from others in the same genre?
While many contemporary films coming from Africa draw attention to themselves through violence and sensationalism, Grand comme le Baobab/Tall as the Baobab Tree is a peaceful story that seeks to bring people closer together through intimacy and honesty. My hope is that by opening up such an intimate window into village life, the film will move people to look past cultural differences and empathize with the story’s deep feelings of love, hope, and sacrifice.
What was it like working with non-actors who had never even watched a TV show or a movie?
The cast is made up of local villagers playing roles that mirror their own lives: the two main characters, Coumba and her sister Debo, are played by real-life sisters who actually are the first kids from their family to go to school. The role of the mother is played by a local woman who was herself a young bride. A young man who never had the opportunity to get an education plays the older brother, a character who has never gone to school.
Tall as the Baobab Tree’s strength is rooted in its performances. Our cast’s improvisational approach culminates in a dramatic and uniquely authentic ensemble performance, with scenes often resulting in spontaneous truthful moments that blur the lines between fiction and reality. The actors really brought their personal experiences into their performances.
Why make the first feature length film in the local dialect of the Pulaar language?
The actors really wanted to bring their personal experiences into their performances and this is their first language. I also wanted the story to be told with all the quiet nuances and double-meanings contained in the Pulaar language. How did we communicate? Well, 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.
Can you tell us about the music used in the film?
We were incredibly honored to have world-reknown musician Salieu Suso perform for the movie with the traditional 21 stringed Kora, the West African harp. Salieu Suso was born into a family of farmers and traditional Gambian musicians/historians that extends back nearly 1000 years. He was trained to play the Kora beginning at age 8 by his father, renowned Kora player Alhaji Musa Makang Suso. He is a descendent of the inventor of the Kora.
We recorded some of the music at the village where we filmed, and the remainder was composed by Jay Wadley, New York based composer/producer and co-founder of Found Objects Music Productions.
Interested in learning more? “Culture, Conflict and Coming of Age” from FANDOR.