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American director, Jeremy Teicher: Tall as the Baobab Tree

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American director, Jeremy Teicher: Tall as the Baobab Tree

American director, Jeremy Teicher: Tall as the Baobab Tree. What is the price of progress? That is the question posed by this thoughtful first feature film by the American director Jeremy Teicher, a Student Academy Award nominated film-maker. Beverley Andrews went to see it.

Set in rural Senegal, Tall as the Baobab Tree charts the impact education has on a rural community and specifically on the lives of two sisters. For both girls the possibility of attending college ultimately appears to be a very real one until their older brother has a terrible fall from a tree and is badly injured. He can no longer work and worse still their father, after paying his medical expenses, has now plunged the family into debt. So in order to pay these expenses he has to choose between his two daughters, which one will remain at school and which to be married off to a wealthy stranger. The film charts how the sisters find themselves caught between tradition and modernity, a dilemma which in many ways echoes that of the community at large.

This insightful first feature came out of Jeremy Teicher’s own experience of living and working in a remote community. “I received a grant to shoot a documentary in this village and to look at the impact the arrival of a new school was having. It was a really humbling experience seeing kids who were now already teenagers starting in the first grade but who were so determined to succeed that you felt nothing could possibly stop them.

“I also noticed, though, how those very same kids also struggled to find a middle ground, a way in which they could both have brighter futures then their parents without discarding their own culture. They wanted to somehow find a middle path where they could embrace both the outside world and the world of their parents. You could see how this was such a difficult balancing act for them to achieve and yet that’s exactly what they wanted to do”.

The father in the film is adamant that the marriage of the younger sister is the only practical solution to the family’s debt problem, but despite this he is not presented as some kind of monster – simply as a man who is trying desperately to do the right thing for his entire family. You sense the internal pain this decision is causing him.

The director stated at a recent screening of the film what his intentions were when he decided to make it: “We made this film in order to look at the issue of forced early marriage. I think, though, what is a distinction about my film is that I didn’t enter into it as a human rights advocate, but a filmmaker, a teenager who knew absolutely nothing. When I met these kids, teenagers of my own age, I felt it was really their story that needed to come out.”

Teicher was only able to make this film because of the close bonds he had developed with the local community. After spending several years filming them, he saw these kids grow up and develop aspirations of their own, primarily to see the world outside their own village. But he also saw their desire not to hurt their parents. When he was finally able to raise the money to shoot this feature he decided to use the village’s real inhabitants. And this gamble pays off hugely since when you watch this story you feel that you have been transported to this remote location and that you are simply watching real events taking place in the characters’ lives.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film comes when a young boy, who is a friend of the oldest sister, and who also attends the same school, is ridiculed by his peers, who tell him that he has forgotten who he is. They make fun of him for preferring books to climbing the village’s majestic baobab tree, a feat that is considered a right of passage for all the boys who live there. It is as if they are saying that through education his very identity has somehow been stolen.

Teicher felt that by not having a political agenda he was better placed to simply tell a story. “I wasn’t there to say we need to make this film with a specific social agenda, it was rather, we need to make this film to capture all these feelings you are having. And from that, an agenda emerges and a statement is made, but not in a pushy way. It allows you to arrive at these conclusions yourself. I wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the characters as much as possible. I wanted you to feel, of course, what the youngest sister feels when she realises she’s about to be sold into a marriage. But I also wanted the audience to feel what the father was thinking or the mother or in fact, the older brother. So for me, fiction seemed the best tool to do that, to put the audience in everyone’s emotional perspective.”

An especially moving scene in the film comes when the mother tries to calm the oldest sister, who has become increasingly anxious about her sister’s prospective marriage and is now working secretly to pay off the debt. Her mother gently tells her that she was married at the same age and that everything turned out well.

The film’s title can be seen as a kind of metaphor for tradition since Baobab trees, which grow throughout West and Southern Africa, can live for hundreds of years and on the surface seem unchangeable, but they do in fact change over the course of time and in many ways they can be seen to represent how traditions do ultimately die and new ones take their place. The film’s own conclusion suggest that very same fact. Although the older sister is ultimately not successful in her mission to rescue her younger sibling, she vows to continue her fight and through education to change a society where traditionally women have had very few rights.

{gallery}Tall as the Baobab Film{/gallery}

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