BFI London Film Festival 2012: ‘Tall as the Baobab Tree’ review


American director Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree (Grand comme le Baobab, 2012) serves as a debut narrative follow up to a previous series of documentaries focusing on rural Senegalese communities, primarily concerned with the importance of tradition that can often come into conflict with the contemporary ideals which accompany education. Set amongst the rolling, sandy plains of the aforementioned West African country, Tall as the Baobab Tree simmers under the tropical climate of its dry and humid rural setting.

Two teenage girls, Coumba (Dior Ka) and Debo (Oumul Ka) – played by real life sisters – are returning to their family’s village after school has finished for the summer. The contrast between their lives in the city and on their small farm couldn’t be any further removed, with the suffocating hustle and bustle of the city a million miles away from the calm serenity and old-fashioned traditions of this sleepy community. However the girls’ lives is thrown into disarray when their older brother – and the family’s chief cow herder – breaks his leg after falling from a baobab tree.

The girls’ father can’t afford the hospital bills, so in order to raise the money he decides to marry-off Debo. Coumba, now fully educated, can’t stand to see her younger sister sold off, so sneaks off to use her new found skills to find a job to raise the necessary funds. Beautifully shot, capturing the changing landscapes of the three worlds which compromise Coumba’s journey (the city, the village and the hotel she works in), Teicher presents us with various perspectives of Senegal, further emphasised by an authentic and suitably ethereal score which adds some much needed vibrancy to the film’s often pedestrian stride.

Tall as the Baobab Tree could easily be read as a petition for universal health care, however its attention seems to be far more focused on the conflict between tradition and education. Visible through the characters’ language, from the use of French in the city and Pulaar (an old tribal language) in the village, this struggle helps portray the current rise of Senegalese Nationalism (which supports the reintegration of Wolof, the country’s original language). Indeed, here education (free for all children under 16) is seen as the enemy, wiping away this isolated community’s cultural identity. This fear is summed up perfectly by Coumba’s mother, who states, “All we have is our culture”.

Carried by the overwhelming love of the film’s three siblings, torn between their religious beliefs and their village’s strict cultural code, Teicher’s narrative debut is an uncomplicated tale told humbly through recognisable narrative techniques and as a much exposition as possible. Tall as the Baobab Tree may not be a cinematic revelation, however its unassuming tale makes for a modest, enjoyable viewing experience.

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble