Director Jeremy Teicher likes coming-of-age stories. Perhaps it’s because he’s not that far from them himself.
Teicher, who graduated from Dartmouth College just four years ago, already has two films under his belt. The first, This Is Us (2011), is a short documentary comprised of vignettes about daily life in Sinthiou Mbadane, a rural Senegalese village. It was shot entirely by youth in that community using pocket video cameras, and narrated by the young people as well.
Teicher was only 19 when he directed and edited the film, which was nominated for a student Academy Award.
The second, a feature film called Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012), builds on the stories Teicher heard from the students in the village. It was screened at the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley and will also be shown at Treefort on Sunday, March 23.
The film focuses on early marriage, a topic identified by the youth in This Is Us as a challenge in their community. Most of the residents of Sinthiou Mbadane are Fulani, one of the first ethnic groups in Africa to convert to Islam. While child marriage, which is illegal in Senegal, is declining, it’s still practiced, as is polygamy, in rural villages such as Sinthiou Mbadane.
Instead of producing a documentary about the subject, though, Teicher, who is more drawn to narratives, chose to dramatize the story.
“I wanted to try and really capture the emotion of being in that situation,” says Teicher.
The first-time actors, many of them the same teens who were in the documentary, are all from the village and nearby Mbour. Teicher and his co-writer, Alexi Pappas, took an improvisational approach to the script, giving the performers a general scene and motivation to dramatize, but allowing them to come up with lines that felt natural for them.
Treefort-goers will appreciate the music in the film, which adds greatly to its mood and authenticity. Composed by Jay Wadley, it’s performed expertly on the traditional 21-stringed Kora bridge-harp by Salieu Suso.
The crew, which also included director of photography Chris Collins, had to work through a translator, since the villagers speak a language called Pulaar. Teicher says he believes this is the first feature film entirely in Pulaar.
Equipment had to be brought in by horse and cart, with batteries being recharged in a nearby town. And before filming, in a traditional act designed to bring good luck, a goat was slaughtered and eaten.
The story unfolds at a languid pace, in keeping with the relaxed nature of life in the village and the often mesmerizing scenes of African landscape. But it also has its dramatic moments, as a teen girl tries desperately to prevent her 11-year old sister from being sold into an arranged marriage with an older man. Their father feels he has no choice but to marry off his youngest daughter in order to pay for the medical expenses of his son, who has fallen from a baobab tree.
While Teicher may not identify as a documentarian, the approach he and Pappas took to the script draws on elements of reportage. The controversial issue of early marriage, for instance, is not openly maligned. Instead, Teicher includes the views of the parents, for whom this is both a monetary issue and a tradition.
“All we have is our culture,” says the mother in the film, a villager who was a child bride herself.
“Don’t change your culture. Understand your culture,” she says to her daughter.
Teicher, who is clear to tell his audiences that he’s not a human rights activist, says his approach was simply to tell a human story, and not to judge.
“We didn’t see him (the father) as a bad guy,” says Teicher. “He wanted to do what was best for his family. It’s not an early marriage to them. It’s just marriage.”
Human rights groups have praised the film, though, and because so many questions about early marriage arise after it’s shown, Teicher has partnered with Girls Not Brides, an advocacy group, to provide educational material about the subject. And, in a dose of reality, Teicher says the actress who played the girl trying to prevent early marriage has herself left school to get married.
Teicher’s next film, already in production, is another coming-of-age story about a long distance runner. It stars Pappas, his partner in life and filmmaking, who is herself a distance runner hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. Expect to hear more from and about the duo in years to come.