Grand comme le Baobab (2012)

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Grand comme le Baobab (Tall as the Baobab Tree) is the first narrative feature from young American director/producer/writer Jeremy Teicher.

Shot entirely on location in a village in rural Senegal, …Baobab tells the story of a village and a people on the verge of modernity, of a community in the midst of a cultural shift that will leave them irrevocably changed forever. Coumba and Debo (Dior and Oumoul Kâ) are two sisters, the first from their family to move away from the village and into the city to attend school. As the film opens, we see Coumba preparing to go and get her final exam results; Debo is just beginning. Back in the village, their brother, Silèye (Alpha Dia) tends the animals and helps the family and elders, feeding the goats from the leaves of the giant Baobab tree.

One day, he falls from the tree, breaking his leg. When the father (Mouhamed Diallo) realises that they will be unable to afford the expensive medical costs, he reluctantly plans to sell 11 year old Debo into an arranged marriage. Realising the implications of this decision, and wanting to protect her sister from a fate she did not choose and may not escape, Coumba decides to take matters into her own hands on hatches a plot to save her.

This is a film of conflict, conflict that may just as easily become dialogue; between Coumba and the village elders, religion and society (father and the family are devout Muslims), between tradition and advancement, history and legacy. It tells us what happens to the old when the world inevitably gives itself over to the new. At the centre of this narrative is an astonishing performance by a cast of actual villagers, untrained as actors, many of whom had never seen a camera before. Coumba and Debo are played naturally and emotionally by real life sisters, whom the director met whilst working on his excellent documentary This is Us (2010), during the filming of which he first heard many of the stories that would become …Baobab. Many of the cast were playing characters just a few steps aside of their real lives, and this results in the type of immediacy and emotional honesty that would be lost were the film shot any other way.

The film was shot on the latest HDSLR camera equipment, and it shows. Beautifully framed, every shot is a joy to behold, from the dusty fields surrounding the village to the bustling streets of the city. Every detail is captured with care and an almost painterly sensibility. Visually the film reminded me very much of certain passages in the films of Carlos Reygadas (particularly Silent Light), a director with whom Teicher seems to share the same sense of landscape as tangible cultural history. The technology is just as capable of giving us an earnest close-up of a character as it is a sweeping shot of waving grass and grazing animals, and Teicher uses it to full effect.

As an example of the new filmic voice of Africa, Teicher has set the standards very high with …Baobab, creating a stunningly shot, universally relevant and important film, and it is obvious from this that he is a young man of no small talent and human compassion. I look forward to seeing whatever he works on next.

Grand comme le Baobab is on at the 56th London International Film Festival on the 14th October at the Ritzy (20:45) and the 18th at the ICA (16:15).

Director: Jeremy Teicher
Stars: Dior Kâ, Oumoul Kâ, Alpha Dia, Mouhamed Diallo
Running time: 82min
Country: Senegal/USA
Language: Pulaar w/ English subtitles

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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