What: Film Review
Directed by: Jeremy Teicher
Written by: Jeremy Teicher, Alexi Pappas, with story by Teicher
Produced by: Mala Bawer, Jeremy Teicher
Starring: Dior Ka, Oumul Ka, Alpha Dia, Cheikh Dia, Mboural Dia, Mouhamed Diallo
Running Time (in min.): 82 minutes
Language: Pulaar w/ English subtitles, French w/ English subtitles
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival
A modern Senegalese folk story makes its way into world cinema through the unlikeliest of sources – a New York-based Student Academy Award nominee – in the touching Tall as the Baobab Tree. This feature debut from writer-director Jeremy Teicher and selection of the 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival ignores its own sensationalist possibilities in favor of sparse, reality-based storytelling. The first full-length narrative film in the Pulaar language, Teicher’s project has the makings of a crossover gem for those who may never hear about it, and will likely become as notable for the people missing it at festivals as for its growing acclaimed-based fans.
Grand comme le Baobab, the original title, does include people performing, but the picture is less a fictionalized portrait of village life than a camera-captured reflection of it. Sisters Dior and Oumul Ka “star” as Coumba and Debo, two members of a tribal family living just outside the hustle and bustle of an urban center in Senegal. Coumba, the elder, has been allowed by her cattle-raising brother (Alpha Dia) and tradionalist parents (Mouhamed Diallo and Mboural Dia) to skip daily chores and work instead towards a college education. The younger, Debo, is on a similar path, attending school and watching with fascination as her sister flirts with handsome schoolmate Amady (softspoken Cheikh Dia).
Early on, the film’s title takes an ironic turn when brother Sileye, macheteing branches from a massive baobab to feed his family’s cows, seriously injures himself in a fall. From this minor, unexpected tragedy, Teicher and co-writer Alexi Pappas, working from Teicher’s original story, spin a simple but ethically complex family drama. With Sileye’s hospital costs, Coumba and Debo’s parents fear they will be unable to sustain their village life – and choose, mutually it seems, to sell the 11-year-old youngest daughter off to a local suitor.
From this scene on, the Pulaar-language microbudget feature’s most comparable peer is The Hunger Games, which includes a strong-willed teenage daughter willing to sacrifice her own livelihood to protect her younger sister. Like Katniss Everdeen, Coumba has brass balls, a large heart filled with stubborn love, and a no-nonsense attitude. While we never see her lift a violent hand against her conservative father or weak-willed mother, her failure to give in to the whims of her traditionalist village hints at a true leader.
Teicher and Pappas focus most intensely on Dior Ka, a slight but natural young actor whose outer calm belies a strong mind. Her education has made her a bit of a cultural agnostic, unsure if culture and community are worth the pain they will soon inflict on her sister. Especially in scenes with the “anything-I-can-do-to-help” Cheikh Dia, Ka manages to express what professionally-trained strive for: emotional, resonant honesty. For that matter, realism is the name of the game for Teicher and Pappas here, who craft dialogue so smartly here that the line between fact and fiction disappears. Press notes suggest that the film’s plot is merely a dramatization of true-to-life events in the lives of the principle and minor actors, all from the village of Sinthiou Mbadana. Further, Teicher’s Student Academy Award-nommed 2011 doc This is Us initiated his relationship with the subjects, several of whom participate in the film.
But it is nonetheless a fictionalization, with a strongly-felt below-the-line presence that lends the rich dialogue and admirable performances their novelty. Pulsing, well-managed music by Jay Wadley establishes both a much-needed dramatic energy – the lack of which makes clear the picture’s poorest sequences – and an eclectic, local flavor. Wadley’s music serves to bridge the space between Western audiences and the film’s subjects, and the composer utilizes rock, French-hued folk, and African instrumentals in all the right places.
Similarly, photography from Chris Collins is not so much beautiful as it refreshing – can you imagine how long it has been since a contemporary film has not been shot in Austin, New York City, Los Angeles or Vancouver? Collins and Teicher give proper shrift to the animals, buildings, dinky toilets, and crowded streets of the film’s landscapes. Most importantly, Collins achieves some startling shots of the movie’s title tree, with cows milling and men and women climbing. In those scenes, the camera suggests not only how high modern technology can capture images from, but how tall the ambition of its capturers truly are.