Interview with Grand comme le Baobab director, Jeremy Teicher

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Below is an excerpt from an email interview with Jeremy Teicher, Student Academy Award nominated director of Grand comme le Baobab, screening at the 56th London International Film Festival in the Dare category.

The director proved to be more than willing to talk about all aspects of his film, with passion and erudition.

FlickFeast: Why Senegal, when the problem of forced marriages is one universally acknowledged?

Jeremy Teicher: Senegal is actually one of the world leaders on this issue. I did not enter into this project with the goal of making a film about arranged marriage, and then picking Senegal — I had been working in this village (where the film was shot) for years before the thought of doing this film even came up.

[…] briefly: I had been doing a doc on education in this village, when several of the students – especially the girls – started bringing up all these stories about arranged marriage. After the doc was released, several months later, we decided to turn the stories into a film.

I think the fact that this film was even able to be made at all speaks volumes about Senegal’s — and especially this village’s — forward-thinking, progressive goals in terms of cultural adaptation to the modern world. Their willingness and ability to have an honest and open discussion, rather than closing themselves off, etc, to me speaks very highly of their leadership on this challenging issue.

FF: Why untrained actors?

JT: The “actors” were actually all local people who I met in 2008, when I first traveled to Senegal as a University student. I continued to grow close with them when I returned to Senegal in 2010 to film the documentary. As I mentioned earlier – […] – this film grew very organically, based on a deep relationship of trust that developed slowly over time. I didn’t fly in there and hold an open casting call. The girl who plays Coumba (the lead) is actually the girl from the documentary who first told me about the village’s ongoing challenge with arranged marriage. Debo, Coumba’s sister, is the actress’s actual little sister. The mom is their second cousin, etc etc. The roles they play are only a few shades off from their actual lives. The performances blend reality with fiction… and for first-timers, they did an amazing job (if I may say so myself).

FF: What do you hope to achieve with this film? Do you think underage marriage is a problem, and one that can be solved?

JT: In Tall as the Boabab Tree I really strove to truthfully represent the villagers and their culture, countering the one-dimensional approach taken by many other media representations of rural Africans.

Rather than contributing to the “othering” of rural Africans, my hope is that the film will spark positive cross-cultural dialogue and help us embrace our shared humanity.

While many contemporary films coming from Africa draw attention to themselves through violence and sensationalism, Tall as the Boabab Tree is a peaceful story that seeks to bring people closer together through intimacy and honesty.

FF: What are your biggest cinematic influences?

JT: I have an eclectic range of cinematic tastes — but for Tall as the Baobab Tree, I drew influence from a few specific sources:

-Lee Isaac Chung’s MUNYURANGABO (I met with Isaac in NYC and he gave me lots of great advice)
-TURTLES CAN FLY and CHILDREN OF HEAVEN – two films that had similar setups as mine, namely disenfranchised youth in a developing country fighting for a chance/dealing with family.

-I found Shakespeare to be an influence in how the film was structured. We didn’t go into production with a traditional script — it was more of an outline. As we shot, I found that the actors tended to talk to themselves a lot…  they naturally slipped into these sort of expositional monologues. I immediately thought of Shakespearean characters who address the audience while seemingly talking to themselves. Also including lots of double meaning and thematic allusions in the dialogue. Although lots of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, I did keep a good bit in the final film.

-While I don’t like to admit it, I did look to some of the “mumblecore” style films that are in vogue today — namely because we both used this documentary-esque style of filming live improvisation to build a narrative rather than careful line-by-line planning. QUIET CITY is a classic example of this.

-As far as the big famous directors, I love PT Anderson, especially in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. In that film, the landscape takes on meaning and becomes a character. I emulated that in TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE.

FF: Why DSLR as opposed to 35mm or video? Was this a budget, stylistic or logistic decision?

JT: DSLR was first and foremost a logistical decision. We were filming in a place with no electricity or running water, accessible mainly by horse cart. We were working with non-actors, improvising dialogue off of a planned outline. None of them had seen professional cinema cameras before. Budgetary questions aside, we needed a small camera package that was low-maintenance and non-imposing. We also didn’t have any lights, other than a flex-fill and two LED litepanels. (no electricity on set). DSLR was a natural choice. (Of course, we were also on a SHOESTRING budget.) I’ll go so far as to say that if DSLR’s didnt exist, we could not have made this film.

Switching from my producer’s hat to my director’s hat, our ability to go inside the actors’ homes with these small cameras and small crew enabled us to create a very intimate set… I highly doubt we would have gotten the amazing natural performances we did if we were working with a more complex camera that required 20 minutes of setup for each shot. We were a run and gun production.

FF: Why is there a tendency towards trauma as the narrative impetus in a lot of African cinema?

JT: This is a good question. Your observation is not entirely true — there is TONS of African cinema made every year… countless comedies, romances, etc etc. Take a look at what comes out of Nollywood!

However, those are not the films that reach our audiences here in the West.

I don’t mean to say that we should be blaming our tastemakers. I think maybe it’s because these types of stories about social change and trauma are a bit more universal and appealing to Western audiences than situational comedies and romances. HOWEVER! In my experience, there is most certainly a tendency on the part of the filmmakers themselves to sensationalize these stories, painting Africa as an entirely war-torn continent of suffering.

This stereotyping is what I was consciously avoiding in TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE. We want to address these questions of social change — which really are big issues in the collective consciousness — but as a director, my goal was to enable the village actors to address these questions with their own voice. So yes, there is trauma — but when we start telling these stories through a Western perspective, that’s when the “othering” and sensationalism comes in.

FF: Where are the cast now? And how did they take to being in an internationally acclaimed film?

JT: They are still in and around the village! Most of the kids and teenagers in the film are about to start the new school year. Some of them are graduating soon and are starting to look for work. They’re very proud that the film is reaching so many people… it was their passion that brought this story to life. They wanted to capture this unique moment of time in their village, when the old ways of life are co-existing with the modern ways of life. In a few decades, the village that we see on screen will most certainly no longer exist.

Of course, any financial success the film has will go back to the village – CyberSmart Learning Insitute, our nonprofit fiscal sponsor, will be donating profits to the local primary school to enable them to continue expanding their classrooms and feeding lunch to the growing number of kids going to school for the first time.

FF: What are your plans for further films?

JT: I have two feature-length scripts in development. Neither of them are set in Africa! The past 3-4 years I’ve spent working in Senegal has come as a surprise to me… I never expected to find such amazing people with these powerful stories to tell. This all started as a one-time project during an off semester at University.

TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE does reflect my artistic sensibilities, though — at its core, I see it as a coming of age story. One of my scripts is also a coming of age, family-centered story. But it appeals more to my tastes as a Wes Anderson and Godard fan. Think Little Miss Sunshine (not Anderson, I know) meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (I do think that this comic/melancholic sensibility is reflected in TATBT — I felt it was very important to highlight the lighter moments of village life within the sad story. Because the truth is, they love hanging out and cracking jokes over there.)

My second script takes from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE’s more political side, and is a coming of age drama about a high school freshman living in a fictional New York City – inspired by my brushes with the Occupy Wall Street protests, my friends from University who work at Goldman Sachs, and by my experience as an American living in the era of Fox News.

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Grand comme le Baobab/Tall as the Baobab Tree screens at the London FIlm Festival 14th October 2012

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