Friday 12 October 2012

London Film Festival Review: Tall as the Baobab Tree (dir. Teicher)

The village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal. A teenage girl, Coumba (Dior Kâ), and her younger sister, Debo (Oumoul Kâ), return to the village from the city with the news that Coumba has passed her school exams and is able to go on to further study. During the girls’ absence, however, their brother Sileye (Alpha Dia) has had an accident and broken his leg, falling from the baobab tree which he climbs to cut shoots for the family’s animals. In order to pay for Sileye’s treatment, the children’s father (Mouhamed Diallo) proposes marrying the 11-year-old Debo off to a rich man, curtailing her education in the process. Coumba is distressed at the idea and resolves to find a way to save her sister from the fate their father has mapped out for her.

The premise of 23-year-old American director Jeremy Teicher’s distinguished debut feature would seem to offer plentiful opportunities for high-octane hand-wringing. None of them are taken, however. Rather, Teicher’s intelligent, humane and moving film unfolds at a measured place, drawing the viewer gently not forcibly into Coumba’s dilemma.  There's suspense build right into the premise, of course – will the resourceful Coumba come up with enough money in time to prevent her sister's marriage? – but Teicher avoids exploiting it in a manipulative or obvious way. What really interests the director are the rhythms of village life, the interactions between the characters (there's a simply beautiful scene between Sileye and Amady (Cheikh Dia), a good-hearted friend of Coumba's who helps her out) and the generational splits that are revealed in the family's attitudes to tradition.

The movie is structured around a series of polarities that the young characters must negotiate - education or marriage; the city or the village - and the director looks at each with remarkable even-handedness. Perspectives accrue as the movie progresses, from the point-of-view of Coumba and Debo's quiet, watchful mother (Mbourai Dia), who gently advises Coumba to "understand" her culture rather than try to change it, to that of Amady, who shares Coumba's ambitions for education and a life beyond the village, and is teased by his already-married young chums for doing so. In essence, though, Tall as the Baobab Tree is a film about sisterly love. Coumba and Debo's bond is established from the tight two-shot that opens the movie, which finds the girls softly singing a song whose lyrics will reverberate throughout the picture: "Courage, my dear, courage."

Rooted in real-life situations and well-acted by a cast made up of Sinthion Mbadane residents, Tall as the Baobab Tree has the palpable ring of truth, benefiting from Teicher's documentary background and combining that with the increased intimacy and space for reflection that fiction can offer. The director frequently elides obvious crowd-pleasing moments to place the emphasis elsewhere, often cutting to the aftermath of a revelation and letting the viewer find their bearings. Everyone he shows us (including the cows who frequently saunter in and out of shot) is treated with tender regard and respect. The result is a beautifully restrained and heartfelt film that deserves to be widely seen.

My interview with Jeremy Teicher can be read at Kubrick on the Guillotine.

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