Tree of life: Jeremy Teicher on Tall as the Baobab Tree

Twenty-three year-old director Jeremy Teicher introduces his impressive first film, showing in the Dare strand of the Festival.

Ashley Clark
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A mere 23 years of age, Jeremy Teicher is a 2010 graduate from Dartmouth College, where he studied Film, English and Theatre. His first narrative feature, Tall as the Baobab Tree, is a sensitive, beautifully shot study of the collision of youth and tradition in a small Senegalese village. Focusing on the efforts of a teenage girl to rescue her 11-year-old sister from an arranged marriage, it was inspired by true stories revealed to Teicher while filming his Student Academy Award-nominated documentary short, This Is Us (2010)

How did the idea for this film come about?

I was working with a non-profit called CyberSmart Africa. They had me work with a group of students and I was making a film for their website. I worked initially with 20 kids and that group got a little smaller over time. What I learned was that they were the first people from their village to ever go to school. It was the first school that was ever built in their village called Sinthiou Mbadane, in 2000. Before that there was no option for them to get education; they were living these very traditional lives, would take care of a herd of cows and that was their livelihood. These kids were changing all of that.

Now with school, kids are expected to spend all day somewhere else, and it throws a spanner in the works – it’s just a different system, and there are a lot of growing pains; they’re at a cultural crossroads.

What did you feel about the tension between village life and city life, and the modernising influences on the characters?

I knew there were so many conflicting feelings going on – the village elders, for instance, are rooted in tradition and school is so new to them. But at the same time they do recognise the value of education (without their permission, no kids would be going to school) and they recognise the need to continue surviving – the income still comes from the cows, that hasn’t changed yet. This first generation is growing up and may start getting jobs soon, so that will totally change the game. But it’s this very unknown middle ground now. So we felt that we could capture that powerfully with a narrative story.

Jeremy Teicher

Jeremy Teicher

How did you approach casting and working with non-professionals?

The film was shot in the same village where we filmed the documentary – one of the girls from the documentary who was the first to bring up the issue of arranged marriage, I knew she would play the main character because she’s got this presence. And she has a little sister who’s the age that we wanted – so that’s reality. Their intimacy comes across effortlessly onscreen. For the other roles of the family members, some of the local adults who helped arrange our meals and such worked with me to pick other people from the village. Everyone was local.

As for the performances, it was not such a stretch, because it’s quite close to their real lives. So I don’t think it was too hard for them to come up with what to say, to improvise. There was a lot of blending between fiction and reality. One moment that stands out is the scene when one character says to his friend, “Will you forget about us when we go off to university?” And that was touching, being there, because that was largely improvised, but that conversation probably was real as they were acting it.

How did you deal with the language barriers?

I know a couple words – the film is in Pulaar, a West African language. One of the local teachers speaks French and Pulaar, and I speak French pretty well, so we would discuss the scene as a group and the translators would help. They would perform in Pulaar, and I’d have to look at the translator and he would nod if they hit the key points. And so when we got back to America, I worked with a Senegalese-American guy in the city and translated every minute of raw footage, line by line, which was quite painstaking. So I was rediscovering the film – I expected to be surprised.

Can you tell me a bit about the soundtrack of the film?

In Senegal, I found a couple of local musicians with the help of our cast and crew and just recorded them with our boom mic, low quality stuff. Some of it we cleaned up and that made it into the film. But for 60-70% of the score I worked with this composer Jay Wadley who I met at Tribeca [Film Festival]. He had never done African music before, but studied the raw material and then composed the score with his keyboard and ProTools. Then we brought in Salieu Suso, a celebrated kora player, and he improvised from Salieu’s score.

What influences did you draw from?

I’d say our main influence was practicality, so we shot it like a documentary. Doing multiple takes was very challenging because it was improvised, so we shot with two cameras most of the time. Sometimes we set up reverse shots, sometimes we set it up wide with a floating close up. That plays into my aesthetic, but the extreme close ups really helped us cut around the improvised performances.

There are some specific film influences. This one film, Munyurangabo, by Lee Isaac Chung who introduced me to the composer, was filmed in Rwanda and worked with improvisation. So I watched his film many times, then met him and learned some of his tricks of how he got the performances that he did. Cinematically, I love Paul Thomas Anderson – like how in There Will Be Blood [2007], landscape is a character. So I tried to emulate that.

What about African cinema, specifically?

Ousmane Sembène is one of the most celebrated Senegalese filmmakers and he’s also a writer – I just read this novel by him, Xala, that’s a cynical social commentary, and his film Black Girl [La Noire de…, 1965] is dark. Our movie isn’t dark or cynical.

Then there are other movies that sensationalise, or do this ‘othering’ thing, just to tell an entertaining narrative. So a lot of our influence comes from what we didn’t want to do.

I wanted to make a specific point that change is not black and white. This is what’s happening right now, in this village, with this generation. In five or ten years it’ll be totally different, and five years ago it was different. But this right now, this first generation of students, this coming of age is happening, these are the challenges they’re facing, and this is why things like early marriage are happening. I think some of the reviews wanted a more traditional narrative, which I understand, but that’s not what we’re doing – we’re showing this time, right now.

Do you tend to read your reviews?

[To make this movie] I turned down the film graduate schools that I got into. I do read the reviews because I don’t have professors critiquing my work – so I get the free critiques from the reviews!

What’s next for you?

I have two scripts, both feature films, that I really want to make. I’m working with the same co-writer that helped me craft the plot of this movie, Alexi Pappas. She and I have written two other scripts and we’re applying for grants and starting a production company, so that’ll be coming very soon. Both of the films are set in America, and they both take from Tall as the Baobab Tree. One is a little more political, about growing up in the era of Fox News and The Daily Show; the other is a family coming-of-age story… so we’re breaking up the two halves of Tall as the Baobab Tree and exploring them further.

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