Paul Risker chats with Jeremy Teicher, writer-director of Tall as the Baobab Tree…
It was at the 56th BFI London Film Festival that I first met writer-director Jeremy Teicher who was there to present his film Tall as the Baobab Tree. It remains a startling work, and one which exudes an almost effortless quality, a rare simplicity all too often absent from film. Whilst it is visually and narratively uncomplicated, it conveys a powerful depiction of tradition versus transformation in rural Africa, of which education is the driving force.
Thanks to The Sundance Artist Services and IFFR in the Cloud (via International Film Festival Rotterdam), Tall as the Baobab Tree has finally received an international digital release, included as part of the 2014 Sundance digital distribution slate comprising films selected by The Sundance Artist Services as “their favourite modern work… ground-breaking narrative films and documentaries… that embody the spirit of independent filmmaking.”
Paul Risker: It strikes me that one of the opportunities Tall as the Baobab Tree afforded you, was the chance to witness the impact of change. You talk about the transformation of a society, and so often in our position it is something we read about, that we look back into the past to see. You had the opportunity to witness this transformation first-hand.
Jeremy Teicher: First-hand… Right in the middle of it… Pretty insane. I first went to this village with an educational group, which turned into a longer documentary. Over the course of two and a half years, three by the time we started making the film, I learned that the rural school we were working in had only been built ten years ago. The students I was working with were mostly in their late teens, and were not that much younger than me when I first went out there as a nineteen year old. They were the first people ever from their village to go to school, and so with this first generation, they are breaking through the wall of dealing with the challenges of integrating an ancient culture with a modern world, and that’s what the film deals with.
PR: That theme is a particularly topical one at present, with the relationship between east and west. It feels at least to a point that there are inherent tensions between cultures; especially the modern west in contrast to the east and it’s deep rooted traditions. I’m not sure whether we always understand societies different to our own, but I do think societies are always more complex than the other would like to imagine. So the point you were making in the film is one relevant to the context of the international community to a point.
JT: I know that’s a large issue in a lot of western European countries, but I can’t speak too much about it. Certainly the core plot of the film revolves round an arranged marriage of an eleven year old girl, and that is a very serious and timely issue that people are dealing with now. What I found when talking about this issue, and many other issues to do with rural Africa and the third world, was that the way these issues can be portrayed in the western media is often ‘othering’ or ‘sensationalising. If you watch a commercial about malaria say, you feel pity, almost as though they are fundamentally different from you, the people on screen. In making this film I wanted to capture reality and put you in their shoes, and look at this issue in a new way, in the context of social change.
PR: You are using cinema as a means to create a window through which we can view another culture?
JT: That’s the word that I use, yeah.
PR: I believe that one of the values of cinema is that it should not be pre-dominantly focused on entertainment, that it should be an entertaining story, but it should offer something more, the exploration of issues, cultures, to open its audience’s minds to the wider world. Cinema can after all quite literally break down boundaries.
JT: I like what you said. The goal of this movie is not to be entertaining. I think it is still a gripping film, but the goal is to put you fully in the shoes of another culture. So if you walk into the cinema with more traditional expectations, you will not get what you want, but if you walk in… Xavier Dolan when he was talking about critics once said that when they are watching a film from their heart, without pre-conceived judgement, which in my experience is what the vast majority of my audience members have done; you are rewarded with this powerful cultural experience that unless you have been there, could have imagined, and you find yourself emphasising with world views that you might have previously found repugnant.
PR: It was an insane situation to find yourself in, probably one I would imagine you would have never have thought you would find yourself in? What emotional and physical challenges did you encounter?
JT: By the time we started shooting the narrative, I had been back and forth to the village for about three years. I knew the village elders, I knew the parents, and everyone knew me, so there was a comfort there and a trust; so that was not a challenge. Also this is a very sensitive and private topic, but the desire to talk about early marriage came from the students I was working with. They made me aware of it; I didn’t know what was going on before. In the documentary (This Is Us) there was a group of girls who said, “We want to talk about early marriage.” It’s obviously very compelling, but it came from them; they wanted this story to be told. There was never any question of pushing people to be uncomfortable because it was the students, the girls in particular who wanted this story told. There were definitely challenges with filming eight hour days in a village with no electricity, but those are more fun and serious.
PR: So the challenges made it a more worthwhile experience?
JT: Yeah, technical challenges always make it more fun.
PR: To go to another country, crossing borders, travelling many miles to discover what is of important to that society, and then give them a tool that is practically alien to them, is a wonderful collaboration between you and these native villagers; a product of collaboration between a technological society and a rural culture; a wonderful marriage one could say.
JT: We made the documentary with flip cameras, the size of a cell phone, and we used about twenty of them, and actually the way we got the footage was the students took the cameras into the villages on their own. That never could have existed a couple of years ago, and cell phones are everywhere so people were comfortable around the cameras. We shot this on the 5D, and I don’t think we could have done this with any other tool but the DSLR. Even if we shot digital, a RED would not have worked, it was too hot, and it was too big. We were filming in their homes, in huts that were not that much larger than this corner table. You couldn’t have a big camera.
PR: What were the challenges in funding Tall as the Baobab Tree?
JT: Okay, so we had made this documentary (This Is Us). The documentary was nominated for a Student Academy Award, so it got a lot of attention and so using the momentum from that the cinematographer – we went to school together – and I worked to get equipment sponsorship, and so we ended up getting all of our gear for free. That was a big chunk not out of our pockets; so free gear. The most expensive part was probably the aeroplane ticket. Chris the DP and I worked for free. We paid the actors and gave a donation to the local school, but we raised most of the budget through the non-profit organisation that I originally worked with, and people donated. Actually people will be able to buy the film once it is released, but if the film turns a profit, the profit will be donated mostly to the school. So it’s non-profit. People donated to a charity to make the film. It’s all private funding, the way you have to do it in America.
PR: Following on from Tall as the Baobab Tree, what will your next project be, or are you not thinking that far ahead?
JT: I have a few scripts. Narrative was always my interest, and I studied Theatre, Film and English at school. I never had imagined I’d spend all these years working in Africa making documentaries, but I was very compelled to do it. But it does fit into my interest. My two interests right now in storytelling are coming of age, and social movement. I love reading the news, I read it constantly, so my two scripts, I’ll pick one pretty soon to commit to, deal with similar themes as Tall as the Baobab Tree, but they are set in America.
PR: As a filmmaker, do you see your career being a combination of using fictional narratives inspired by reality, real events, rather than pure documentary form?
JT: I don’t see myself making another documentary, unless I discover something that is really compelling. Certainly having had this experience, I’m aware of cinema’s power to talk about what’s happening now. I love movies like Network, and 1984 which are pure fiction, but you think about your surroundings after you are done with a movie like that. I love those types of films, and then I have a soft spot for melancholic coming of age movies like Wes Anderson’s films. I’m working with a co-writer on a script like that. A lot of my work in college dealt with childhood, and so that’s something that really interests me, and Tall as a Baobab Tree is in a lot of ways about growing up very fast. I feel like I’m discovering what motivates me as an artist.
PR: The film medium then is affording you the opportunity to express yourself, whilst functioning as an important part in your personal growth and development?
JT: Yeah, as an artist, and in this movie I’m hopefully aware of the social and political implications that it can have in the statements that it is making. Tall as the Baobab Tree probably more than what is probably my next movie has a very clear statement and goal.
PR: Do you regard the importance to try and do a hybrid of the two, documentary but also a narrative piece, because the industry’s preference is for a director to do one thing or the other, making it easier to categorise you.
JT: Making this film was certainly a narrative experience. I directed a lot of theatre in school, and working with these actors was no different. I feel I have some pretty intense training as a director as a result of working with an eleven year old for a month who had never seen a camera before. You had to be very clear in your directing. It was definitely a narrative experience. I had an internship in college at PBS working with this team of documentary filmmakers, and I could see how passionate they were about finding a topic and wanting to get to the bottom of it with the documentary. I don’t have that. I am moved by fiction more and the power of fiction. At the same time I like talking about the real world, and that’s why I chose to make Tall as a Baobab Tree, a fiction film instead of another documentary, because to me what was compelling about the situation were the conflicting emotions that people were going through. Fiction is my tool.
Thanks to Jeremy Teicher for taking the time for this interview. This article originally appeared on EatSleepLiveFilm.
For further information and to watch Tall as the Baobab Tree visit: www.tallasthebaobabtree.com/watch
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth.