Too young to be married

Dior Ka plays older sister Coumba who tries to raise money to buy sibling Debo (Oumoul Ka, right) out of an arranged marriage in Tall As A Baobab Tree directed by Jeremy Teicher.

Tall As A Baobab Tree is a film about how two sisters from a Senegalese village struggle against centuries of tradition when the younger girl, at age 11, is sold by her father into marriage with a much older man.

Once married, she will have to give up her dream of further education, and with it, a better life for herself.

American film-maker Jeremy Teicher, 25, is aware that he has to tread carefully.

"It's very sensitive. With an issue like early marriage, it's not always good. There are so many economic and health repercussions, and some of the marriages have abuse and violence," says Teicher, the project's director, co-producer and co-writer.

His debut feature film, which airs this month on Sundance Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 401), does not press for social change, he says.

It is him trying to be a a storyteller, to "capture a moment in time" in a culture caught between two worlds, the old and the new.

"This is a group of people who see the world changing. The parents want what's best for their families but they don't understand how best to adapt and as a result, make decisions that are harmful to their children. They are not evil people. They are stuck in old ways of thinking," he says.

To shoot the 2012 film, the New York-born Teicher spent several weeks in 2011 in the village of Sinthou Mbadane, two hours south of the capital Dakar. He relied on locals, none of them actors, to fill his cast.

Teicher had first visited the village in 2009 to make a documentary as part of an educational aid project.

He stayed in touch with its residents and the idea for a fiction film grew from conversations with the village's younger folk. The disruptive force of early marriage was a topic they felt strongly about, he says.

"The big plot line is early marriage versus education. It totally came from the students I was working with. I'm interested in stories about growing up and not fitting in with society around you," he says, speaking to Life! on the telephone from Oregon, where he is working on his next film.

To fund the "very, very small budget" African project, Teicher tapped friends and family for donations, as well as asking companies to lend film equipment at no cost.

He wanted to frame the story as a fiction feature, rather than a documentary, because he felt a non-fiction work would not carry the fine emotional details that surround the issue of child marriage.

The work has since won critical praise as well as festival honours at the British Film Institute Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival, among others. It has been lauded for its restrained and honest feel, much of which comes from shooting in and around a real village.

The crew of three Americans and six locals, mostly high school students on a summer break, lived in a hotel in a larger town nearby. Unlike the village, the town had the electricity necessary to charge equipment batteries.

The cast of untrained actors improvised dialogue from general instructions given by Teicher. They speak the local language of Pulaar and two real sisters, Dior and Oumoul Ka, play the lead roles, in which the older sibling Coumba (Dior) tries desperately to raise the money that will buy the younger child Debo (Oumoul) out of her arranged marriage. The cast used their own clothes and there was no set design.

"It was 100 per cent real. We filmed in their homes, so they had to step outside for a moment, then we would leave so they could go back to cooking dinner or whatever they were doing. They wore their own clothes," he says.

The crew were given access to the lives of these normally private people because of his long friendship with its residents, says Teicher.

That special relationship also meant he could not wait too long to make the film, and explains why he opted to to raise his own funds, rather than use up months applying for grants.

"The Senegalese students, the crew and the actors, were all about to graduate from high school and move away from the village. There was that one window of time, that one summer. If we didn't make this movie now, we would never make it."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Tall As A Baobab Tree airs on Sundance Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 401) today at 8.45am, on Tuesday at 7am & 4pm, Nov 21 at 8.30am and 6.20pm, and Nov 27 at 4pm.