Jeremy Teicher is a screenwriter and filmmaker whose 2011 documentary short, This is Us, earned him a nomination for the Student Academy Award. His latest film, the Senegalese family drama Tall as the Baobab Tree, is the first feature to be spoken in the Pulaar language. Since its world premiere in 2012, the film has received significant international acclaim. In May 2013, it was an Official Selection of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Mr. Teicher spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about the inspirations for his feature, transporting film equipment via horse cart, and the differences between a human rights story and a human story. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: Your film has had all of its previous screenings [before May 5] outside the U.S. How has preparing to take the film to San Francisco been?
Jeremy Teicher: This is what we worked for, you know? It’s nice to be getting the film to the American press since it has played so widely internationally. We had our world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival [in August 2012], and then went to London [Film Festival, Oct. 2012], and to [International Film Festival] Rotterdam [Jan. 2013.] We’ve screened now in Europe, Canada, and the Middle East, and people have been responding to the story in really similar ways. But what I love, and what we’re also doing in San Francisco is when festivals place us in their main program, and then separately have educational screenings or special programs. High school or middle school students come out, and you end up with a theatre filled with two hundred 16-year-olds.
SM: In your experience, who is more attentive to the subject matter of your film: the 16-year-olds, who are closer to the demographic onscreen, or the festival-going cinephiles and audiences?
JT: We did a screening at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar, and high school students there were allowed to give an award to the best film. We won that award, and we did similar screenings in London and Paris that were cool. But I would say the audiences have been about equal. In our festival screenings, the public seeks us out maybe because they are interested in African cinema or in the subject matter – our “interest group” audiences and cinephiles. The high schoolers have no choice but to go to these screenings, though. You wouldn’t think they would want to watch this, like, introspective film from rural Africa. Then when we have Q-and-As after the screening, they start softly talking about these issues and I can see them connecting with our characters.
SM: How did you end up in rural Africa [in the Senegalese village of Sinthiou Mbadane] in the first place?
JT: I went as a total blank slate as a junior in college. I had studied film, theatre, and English in college, not international affairs. I was hired by this company called CyberSmart Africa, which deals with solar power and learning on that subject. I didn’t go to Senegal as a human rights worker looking to talk about these social issues, you know?
SM: If I’m not mistaken, one of your producers, Mala Bawer, still works with CyberSmart.
JT: Yes, though she did not bring me in originally. I have since continued with them, and CyberSmart came on as the nonprofit fiscal sponsors of the film. They have been helpful with the business end for the film. Anyway, they brought me to Africa for a two-week trip, and in that time I met Dior [Ka], who plays Coumba in the film, and the actor who plays Amady [Cheikh Dia]. I was nineteen at the time, they were sixteen or seventeen, and we connected as peers. I learned that they were the first in their village to ever go to school, and I found that very interesting. As a filmmaker and writer, I’m interested in coming-of-age stories; hearing my new friends talk about being the only person in their family to attend school was attractive to me as a storyteller.
SM: Who was your anchor for information and facts while you were in Africa? Certainly the young kids getting married would not have been good foundations for you.
JT: It was Dior who first started talking to me about it. I didn’t know any facts or statistics except what she told me was happening in her family. All the other students started chiming in and telling me about what went on in their village and in their personal families. This is where you have to be really careful: this is not a black-and-white issue. So often, when we read about early marriage, our first reaction is shock and disgust. But what I saw in the village was that people who kept early marriage happening thought it was the best thing for their families. These are not evil people by any means; they just live in a fundamentally different world than the modern one. Now that these two worlds are mixing for the first time, changes are happening overnight. My goal as a director was specifically not to “expose” early marriage, but to make a story about what’s happening in a family, and how people are feeling and making decisions. No kid wants to sit down to watch a film that teaches an issue, but when you have a real story, intelligent people can really begin to discuss this issue.
SM: You made a documentary short on the subject called This is Us. When and why did you decide to move the story from documentary to narrative fiction for Baobab?
JT: Fiction has always been my interest as an artist – the way I see the world and imagine its stories is through fiction. So I’ll take you through the timeline. After that two-week trip, I knew I wanted to make a film about these kids. Eventually I found funding for a documentary through [alma mater] Dartmouth’s Lombard Fellowship. I had noticed up until then that many films about children in villages were these sort of tear-jerking, sensationalist documentaries, but that was quite different from my experience. These kids recognize obstacles and challenges in their village, but look at them with so much determination and optimism that I wanted to show that in the doc. I wanted to show them joking and laughing normally, which we did. What I think is powerful is that we show them having these laughs, yet later they’re studying for school by candlelight. I also think that’s why we were nominated for the Student Academy Award in 2011. It wasn’t until we were already shooting the documentary that I heard about this tradition of early marriage…
SM: Are there major differences you’ve noticed in this move from a documentary format to a fiction format?
JT: What I wanted to do was capture the emotions of the story and really put people in the shoes of the characters. In the shoes of Coumba, the frustrated first-generation student who wants to move into the modern world but is stuck in traditionalism. In the shoes of [Coumba’s love interest] Amady. I wanted you to feel the frustration and the isolation that they feel; the amazing feeling that comes with being a student at school, only to come home and not really be a part of your family anymore. Likewise, I wanted you to feel what Mother [Mboural Dia] and Father [Mouhamed Diallo] are feeling, or how the brother [Sileye, played by Alpha Dia] is feeling about the early marriage thing. And I wanted to get across the feeling of their village. I’m sure there are plenty of documentary filmmakers who could get those feelings across in some other way, but for me – having made short fiction films in Dartmouth – there was no doubt that fiction was the best tool to capture these things.
SM: How did you manage to secure funding for a first feature after your documentary came out?
JT: After we got the Lombard, I submitted [This is Us] to a lot of film festivals, but we didn’t get in anywhere. The way it was made was not very conventional. Kodak had donated some flip-cameras for the shoot, and the students had actually shot parts of it…it was important to me that the film was unconventional in that way. So I thought that was it and that I was done with my Senegal project and that, even though I wanted to keep in touch with the students and teachers for years to come, I was ready to move on to another film. I had it in the back of my mind that this could make an amazing feature. But I’m a storyteller, so I was already getting another project ready to go. It was going to be an ultra-low-budget narrative fiction to be shot in New York. Then, in the winter of 2011, beginning of 2012, we got the nomination for Student Academy Award, and I knew that could help us generate momentum for a project. So I contacted Chris Collins, our cinematographer, who I went to high school with. He had been watching the documentary in progress and had told me to call him if I ever got started on the next project. Since we were sponsored by a non-profit, he had the idea to try and get our equipment for free, just as we had when Kodak donated.
SM: I can imagine finding money under non-profit sponsorship for equipment would not be easy.
JT: *Laughs* That’s right. But we knew that, since we were non-profit, it could be used as a high-level tax deduction. So Chris got to work on that, and I began meeting with investors to raise a bit of private equity. That was successful, though we had a very limited amount of time to raise the funds. We heard about the nomination in ’11, and we knew that Coumba and Amady and their friends in the village – who have all since moved away – were only going to be there for that final summer in 2012. So we HAD to have the money by summertime, and it was already February or March when we started fundraising. Chris managed to get the sponsorships and I raised some money through private donations, but not enough, and we didn’t Kickstart or crowdsource. I had also applied to some big film schools and I was accepted to one around this time. I had saved up some money for grad school thinking that was what I might want to do. I labored over the risk of spending that money when I could have bought perhaps three years of training and practice. But I knew I had to make this film.
SM: How early into the filmmaking process on this feature-length work did you know what you wanted it to look and feel like, as you described above?
JT: Artistically, I already had a vision for the film when we began. I had made enough films at Dartmouth that I knew how to string them together well. Our DP Chris had already been out in Los Angeles working for a few years, and our Jack-of-all-Trades guy, Luke Hanlein, who went to college with Chris, had been working as well. Basically, they kicked my ass out [on set]; I went in as an amateur.
SM: Did they help you to get more technically literate?
JT: Absolutely, technically, but they also showed me how to run things. We stayed at a hotel in town because we needed electricity to charge the camera. Everyday, we loaded all our equipment onto a horse cart. Our actors were not yet actors, they were real people, so multiple takes was never much of an option. If we wanted good performances, we had to let them act as in a play, as if these things were really happening. Luckily they were confident enough and talented enough that these performances really shined when they acted like themselves, especially since so much of the film is so close to their real lives. There were just certain things that we would have needed a professional cast to accomplish fully.
SM: Give me an example.
JT: Hitting marks was very hard. It put rack focuses or dolly shots totally out of the question, and created the new question of how to get the necessary coverage with only two, maybe three takes, max. What we did was set up two cameras – one that was live, and one that we called, “The Floating Close-up.” Tons of our footage is labeled, “Floating C.U.” *laughs* Chris or Luke would just toss on a zoom [lens] and just float through the scene, shooting the actors by their movements in ultra close-ups. That’s why there’s so many in the film, but I like that – as I said, I wanted to really capture the texture of the village. I think it adds a dimension to the performances by focusing so closely on the hands or the feet of the actors…I would definitely want to carry that over to a film with professional actors, too.
SM: That is an old-school film technique – close-ups of the hands, eyes, and feet – to create this real sense of empathy. That’s some real Orson Welles stuff: a classic filmmaking trope.
JT: Our editor, Sofi Marshall, was, or is, particularly skilled at combining those images with the story. She came onboard once we were back in the States, and I can’t wait to work with her again. She cut Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher.
SM: As Americans, we can be insensitive and/or unknowledgeable about the issues that your film breaches. As you’ve said, the film is not solely a human rights film, but rather, a human one. Yet it does bring to light a more complex perspective on what our society widely considers a black-and-white issue. Do you want to continue down the road towards educational filmmaking?
JT: That is a huge question. You know, I’m not a human rights worker – I’m a storyteller. But I do recognize that this film deals with significant issues and has a lot of potential as an educational tool. Early on, I reached out to some of the experts to create these relationships with them. Our main partner now is Girls Not Brides, which is a big enough organization that they already have teaching materials and examples. In making this film, we couldn’t reinvent the wheel, you know? They’ve helped by creating some cool worksheets and educational material to go along with the film. And as we become distribution-ready, we’re going to be designing a whole curriculum around the film for classrooms. On the flip side, when Girls Not Brides sends out their newsletters about us, our site is the most-clicked link. When we screen in cities that they have members, we draw supportive audiences. Because this film is not a heavy-handed human rights film, but is instead a film with a good story, people like to come out to see it. Also, we’ve been screening with the Human Rights Watch around the world, and we’ll be the Closing Night film for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival [NYC, June 13-23, 2013.] I think the film’s ultimate home will be in education and human rights outreach.
SM: What is the game plan for your film’s distribution?
JT: Our goal now is to get the film connected with the people who will help place it into the African cultural film archives. Our human rights friends are truly great with that. Through [IFF]Rotterdam, they have this program where they choose thirty films from the festival and pay to encode them for iTunes release. We’ll be going worldwide there on a curated Rotterdam page for sure, and we’re also working towards a sort of “African Film” list on iTunes as well. It’s a totally new program just launched this year called IFFR in the Cloud, and I think it’s awesome. I want to be able to reach out to my own audience digitally, even if the film doesn’t go through more traditional venues.
SM: With your film really starting to generate traction, including festivals, awards, and human rights partners, where do you go from here as a filmmaker?
JT: I want to make another movie, of course. This next one won’t be set in Senegal. [Co-writer] Alexi [Pappas] and I are writing the script. It’s going to be another coming of age story that will combine reality and fiction, set in the world of American elite running in the Olympics. It’ll come from her experience as a runner and focus on a young woman in that world. It won’t be a sports movie at all – our artistic statement is more about looking at conformity, the need to fit in, and aging from a child to an adult in 2010s America. I love to watch news and I found myself really immersed in the zeitgeist and in our culture during our Senegalese project. It’s already in the pipeline. I’m excited to get to put in my two cents about my own culture *laughs*.