Tall as the Baobab Tree
It’s been an especially bogus year on the “privileged white filmmakers going to far-flung locales and making mildly exploitative movies about impoverished indigenous people (or bayou people) front,” especially when there’s kids involved, but Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree puts your fears to rest about its intentions very quickly. The 24-year-old New Jersey-bred filmmaker’s debut is a smart, rhythmic and altogether respectful look at the attempts of two young women to self-actualize in a rural Senegalese village. When their brother is injured shearing leaves from a baobab tree, their tight-knit family, who herd cattle for a living, must find a way to pay for his health care. The cattle are not yet fat enough to go to market, so the father devises a plan to marry off his youngest daughter, who has yet to flourish in school in quite the way his eldest has. This enrages both young women, and they set out on a clandestine attempt to raise enough money to keep the younger sister in school.
Performed by non-actors, this is an unsentimental film with a great soundtrack, impressive cutting and an ending that is courageous and true and a bit of a downer. Perhaps more importantly, there isn’t a whiff of ethnographic exploitation involved. No magic-realist flights of fancy to avoid the painful truths of an actual social reality can be found here. That Teicher extends his empathy to the conservative elders and the loving, if traditional, parents as well — there are no ignorant or backward semi-villains imposed for the comfort of Western audiences — is a sign of a rare maturity for a neophyte just coming into his own. He’s a director to watch. (Brandon Harris)