New York-based film-maker Jeremy Teicher talks about his Senegal-set Tall As The Baobab Tree.

Jeremy Teicher

Jeremy Teicher first went to rural Senegal five years ago when he was 19, working on a short promotional video for an education-focused NGO to promote digital literacy. He was inspired by the young people he met – the first generation from their village to go to school – and made a short documentary about them, This Is Us, which was nominated for a Student Academy Award.

For that project, Teicher knew he wanted to let the locals tell their own stories, not impose his own views on them. So they wrote their stories and also shot them themselves using pocket cameras he provided. “I wanted them to share their stories with us,” he says. “It was a novel window into village life.”

He wanted to avoid the usual way that “Westerners swoop in and get their footage that’s pitched as ‘oh the poor Africans.’ I wanted to do the opposite, and remove myself as much as possible…I’m more like an ambassador for them, representing their voices.”

Teicher’s first fictional feature, Tall As The Baobab Tree (Grand Comme Le Baobab) was born out of that documentary, as his lead actress was one of the girls who had documented her village’s practice of marrying some girls off between the ages of eight and 12. The narrative follows two sisters, Coumba and Debo. While one hopes to attend college one day, the other may be sold into an arranged marriage.

The story represents a clash of modernity and tradition, with some grey areas between what’s good and bad. “It’s an interesting social dynamic crossroads,” Teicher notes. “Everyone [in this village] is aware that they are living through a time of insanely fast change.”

The cast is wholly comprised of local villagers – most of whom had never seen a video camera before, much less acted. “The dialogue was improvised for the most part based on the outline we had written (he wrote the script with Alexi Pappas).” He says the cast members were usually playing a character that was “one shade off from who they are.”

There was a small crew of four: two from Los Angeles and two Senegalese sound guys who they trained. The low-budget film was privately financed and also made possibly by generous donation of equipment from the likes of Canon and Zeiss. “We paid all the Senegalese cast and crew, but the Americans were working just for food really,” he notes.

They sacrificed a goat for good luck at the start of shoot (it was later eaten), and had to deal with no electricity or running water. Camera batteries were charged each night at a hotel, and crew members travelled to the village each day on horses. “It sounds extreme, but it didn’t feel extreme,” says the New York-based director.

The work paid off, as the film is being promoted by a number of organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Girls Not Brides, as well as playing at the 2012 BFI London Film Festival and winning the best narrative feature prize in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival’s Doha Giffoni strand.

Teicher is now in Rotterdam to screen the film and also to meet with potential sales companies. He’s in development on his next film, also about teenagers discovering their identity, set in the world of Olympic running. (Co-writer Pappas is a world-class runner.)

Tall As The Baobab Tree screens in Rotterdam at 09:30 Friday (Jan 25) and again at 19:30 Weds (Jan 30).