Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 15th October, 2012

The village of Sinthou Mbadane, in the ‪Thiès region of western Senegal, is one of these places so obscure that from my comfy chair in London I cannot find it on my Google Maps nor find anything about it on my Google Search other than the fact there’s now a movie about it. In this area there is none of the contemporary Western drive to get every last person in higher education, rather there is work to do: The piano-fingered kids carry on in school, while others are trained to labour. Even ten-year-old boys are expected to climb the monkey-bread trees wielding machetes, and to know how to cut them for fruit and material.

Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree (Grand comme le baobab) shows adulthood crashing down on youth, and rural tradition and modern educational opportunities push-pulling each other, by staging a dramatic, convincing dilemma. We meet a village family in which teenage Coumba (Dior Kâ) and 11-year-old Debo (Oumul Kâ) are members of the first generation to go to school. Their older brother Silèye (Alpha Dia) is the one who does the agricultural work.  But the brother has a fall, and breaks his leg. In this self-sufficient community, there is not enough money coming in to pay his medical bill. The father (Mouhamed Diallo) decides that they have no choice but to get quick cash from a dowry – by seeking a suitor and marrying off little Debo.

Coumba’s are the eyes through which we see most of the action. She begs for an alternate solution. She proposes that she, rather than her little sister, will be the one to marry. If not that, then she will work in a nearby town for a month or so. The father holds steady in his plan. He thinks Coumba is already too far along in school to let that opportunity go, whereas Debo won’t know what she’s missing by going an alternate path. And Coumba cannot be spared to go get a wage when someone, after all, needs to take care of the cows.

In plot terms, Tall as the Baobab Tree shows Coumba secretly working in town to scrabble enough money together before her dad finds Debo a husband, while Coumba’s friend Amady (Cheikh Dia) secretly does her agricultural work. But as the movie studies routine up close, it’s the thematic content we’re invited to reflect on. The father character, stubborn as he is, comes across as gentle and caring, open-minded about the possible values of education, yet determined that his decisions, and those of the village elders, are respected. This is the attitude of all the traditional workers: they have a curiosity about urban life and the possibilities of book-learning and the modern world, but they have a parochial paranoia about these fancy-pants kids not appreciating where they come from. When Coumba confides the family problems to her schoolteacher, her mother asks, “You behave like city people now?” Later, when doing the laundry, she asks Coumba, “Why don’t you take this as seriously as your school?”

Such drama is what gives Tall as the Baobab Tree its most riveting aspects. From one angle, it is tragic that Debo may essentially be sold off into paedophilia and limited prospects. From another, the villagers understand that young marriage leading to a life of tradition is something solid and dependable. “I married young, and I have enough to make any woman happy,” says the mother in one scene. We’re not invited to simply dismiss the villagers as ignorant bumpkins, rather people who when faced with the choice will grasp what they can hold rather than gamble for the far-off dreams of ambition and adventure. Humble deference to religion permeates their interactions; their conversation is punctuated with “God willing,” and “God is great,” and they greet each other by saying, “all is peace, only peace.” From Coumba’s perspective, she is fighting to expand her sister’s horizons and protect her innocence, and she wants to show her parents that another way is possible. Yet her mission feels tense, because defying their roots is exactly the impression these educated kids don’t want to give. “Don’t change your culture,” the girl is advised at one point. “All you have is your culture.”

The overt filmic qualities of Tall as the Baobab Tree aren’t incredibly dramatic. It’s photographed with care and detail on Canon 5D and 7D DSLRs, enough to have a rich sense of character and place but without any kind of punchy picturesque wow factor. The dialogue sometimes plays as very matter-of-fact (“I passed my exams.”/”That is good.”/”Yes, I am happy.”), and I found it hard to judge if this is true to the way meat-and-potatoes Senegalese villagers communicate or if it’s just absurdly simple screenwriting.

Nevertheless, as a whole Tall as the Baobab Tree feels genuine and human, and investigation of the way it was made bears this out. Teicher, only 23 when the picture was shot, had already directed the Student Academy Award-nominated feature documentary This is Us, which gave Senegalese villagers flip-cameras to record moments of their lives. Dior Kâ, now playing Coumba, but originally a participant in the documentary, told Teicher how girls between 8 and 12 are often forced to marry because of economic necessity. And from there the American director discussed with his new African friends how this kind of situation might play out, and developed a screenplay in discussions that sound somewhat like the Mike Leigh method of structured improvisation.

Because the film was made by good people who are actually caught up in its issues, it seems acutely aware, unsentimental and non-judgemental about the choices with which its characters are presented. This is on the surface a simple film, but one that fleshes out the reality of the fallout between trees of fruit and the Tree of Knowledge.