Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Peer to peer

Family of Woman Film Festival highlights special collaboration


Jeremy Tiecher on location.jpg
Courtesy photo

    Advocating the empowerment of women and girls with this year’s theme of “Women and Education,” the seventh annual Family of Woman Film Festival will take place March 4-10, with dramatic and documentary film screenings from around the world at the Sun Valley Opera House and internationally recognized speakers at The Community Library in Ketchum.
    One of the aspects that founder Peggy Goldwyn is especially proud to elevate involves a film now nominated for a student Academy Award, a documentary called “This is Us.” Aspiring filmmaker Jeremy Teicher gave cameras to students in Senegal to make the film. That work inspired the full-length drama being show here soon, “Tall as the Baobab Tree.”
    Teicher was 22 years old when he made “Tall as the Baobab Tree,” making him only a few years older than the students who inspired the film.
    The festival provided this Q&A with the filmmaker.  
FOW: How did you create the idea for “Tall as the Baobab Tree?”
Teicher: “Tall as the Baobab Tree” came about as a result of a collaborative relationship with a group of first-generation students in the small rural village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal, built slowly over several years. I first traveled to Sinthiou Mbadane as an educational volunteer in 2008, my junior year in college, directing a “video storytelling” project in the local village school. I worked with a group of teenagers and quickly learned that these students, not much younger than me, were the first people from their village to ever go to school. This project grew into a two-year endeavor, resulting in a 30-minute documentary, “This Is Us,” which was nominated for a 2011 Student Academy Award. The documentary spoke to the cultural challenges, tensions, and also the hopes and dreams that come with education. During the course of making the documentary, there was one girl who felt passionately about highlighting the challenge posed by arranged marriage: how the old tradition (of marrying off young girls) was clashing with modern education, and how it was left to her generation to find a middle ground between these two irreconcilable worlds. This girl, named Dior Kâ, ultimately became the lead actress in “Tall as the Baobab Tree.” The film is directly inspired by her stories and by the experiences of her peers.

Since the film’s completion, what has happened with “Tall as the Baobab Tree?”
This film—which was shot on a shoestring budget with a four-person crew—went on to screen at top film festivals around the world. The film is being commercially released in the U.S. by the Sundance Institute, and has several other distribution deals internationally. The Sundance Institute selects their “favorite modern work” for distribution. Our Senegalese premiere was co-hosted by the U.S. and Netherlands embassies in the national theater in Dakar. The Netherlands Embassy went on to host nearly 60 screenings in villages across the country. The film has screened in dozens of countries around the world, with several screenings hosted by the Human Rights Watch.  

How has the “Tall as the Baobab Tree” informed audiences about Senegalese life and culture? Human rights issues?
While many contemporary films made in Africa draw attention to themselves through violence and sensationalism, “Tall as the Baobab Tree” connects with the audience through empathy and honesty. Our heartfelt story opens a uniquely honest window into daily village life—a seriously under-represented perspective in today’s African cinema. “Tall as the Baobab Tree’s” narrative story gives voice to the countless young girls in the developing world who are still being denied an education by forced early marriage. This controversial, seemingly black-and-white issue is examined within the wider cultural context of tradition clashing with modernity for the first time in rural village life. The press has praised our approach as “remarkably sympathetic … shaking moviegoers, without being judgmental.”

What were some of the hurdles to make “Tall as the Baobab Tree” in a rural African community?
Between of the fact that our shooting location was miles away from the nearest paved road, with no access to electricity or running water, it’s safe to say that making “Tall as the Baobab Tree” was quite a risky endeavor. However, we were all so passionate about telling this story, capturing this unique cultural crossroads, that we had no choice but to push ahead. The local students and their families were an essential part of the filmmaking process—they were the actors and we were filming in their homes. Culturally, we were all in the filmmaking process together with complete, unwavering support. The only challenges we faced were technical in nature, like how to load our equipment on a horse cart (the village was inaccessible by road) and how to protect the camera when the rainy-season monsoons suddenly appeared out of nowhere!  

How did the Senegal community react to “Tall as the Baobab Tree?” How do most audiences react to “Tall as the Baobab Tree?”
Before our first festival screening, we played the film in Sinthoiu Mbadane for the actors and their families. It was an emotional experience for everybody—the thrill and elation of seeing themselves on screen was mixed with a deeper sense of gravity at having captured this pivotal moment in their village’s history, the end of a cultural era. Internationally, I’ve been very moved to see how passionate audiences have been in Q&A sessions after our screenings.  I think “Tall as the Baobab Tree” is a challenging and controversial experience for many Western audiences because it forces people to empathize with worldviews they have never really considered before.

Meet the filmmaker
On Saturday, March 8, the festival will celebrate International Women’s Day with a slate of films at the Sun Valley Opera House. At 11 a.m., Jeremy Teicher will present his Student Academy Award-nominated short film “This Is Us”(Senegal), for free. Students who attend this film will be given free admittance (with student ID) to the feature drama, “Tall as the Baobab Tree,” which will screen at 3 p.m.


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