The 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival comes to a close on June 23 with Jeremy Teicher’s heart-wrenching Tall as the Baobab Tree, an involving, powerful, yet gentle drama about a Senegalese family trapped by tradition in a modernizing world. Real-life sisters Dior and Oumoul Kâ star as Coumba and Debo, close siblings who live in the tiny rural village of Sinthiou Mbadane (where they actually are from). When their older brother, Silèye (Alpha Dia), falls out of a baobab tree and breaks his leg, their father (Mouhamed Diallo) doesn’t have enough money to pay for the necessary medical care so he instead sends Coumba out to do Silèye’s job of herding the cows and decides to sell off eleven-year-old Debo to suitors for marriage. Their mother (Mboural Dia) is unwilling to stand up to her husband, so Coumba hatches a plan in which her friend Amady (Cheikh Dia), who has a crush on her, will watch the herd for her secretly while she heads into the city and gets a job until she makes enough money to help Silèye heal and prevent Debo from having to marry so young. Unfortunately, not everything goes quite as planned. But through it all, no matter how difficult things get, all of the characters maintain their faith, praising peace and continually saying, “God is great.”
Teicher came up with the idea for Tall as the Baobab Tree when he was a student working on This Is Us, a documentary for the nonprofit organization CyberSmart Africa in which the children of Sinthiou Mbadane created brief digital stories about their lives. Teicher, who directed Tall as the Baobab Tree and cowrote it with Alexi Pappas, chose to focus on the very real African problem of forced marriage of young girls between the ages of eight and twelve, collaborating closely with the nonprofessional actors selected from the village, allowing their own stories to meld together, blending fact and fiction. Another central issue is the importance of education, particularly for girls, as Debo clearly would rather follow in Coumba’s footsteps and prepare for university instead of becoming a child bride. The narrative unfolds slowly and calmly, with no overemotional, melodramatic moments or any soapbox preaching, while the tender mood is enhanced by cinematographer Chris Collins’s lush photography and Salieu Suso’s Kora-based score. Presented in conjunction with the African Film Festival and Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, Tall as the Baobab Tree, the first feature ever filmed in the Puular language, is screening June 23 at the IFC Center at 7:00, followed by a discussion with Teicher and Human Rights Watch African division deputy director Rona Peligal, and again at 9:30, introduced by Teicher.