Director: Jeremy Teicher
Cast: Dior Ka, Oumul Ka, Mboural Dia, Mouhamed Diallo, Cheikh Dia
Running time: 82 minutes
Plot: Coumba and her 11-year-old sister Debo live with their devout Muslim family in a small village in Senegal. When their brother Sileye has an accident, their father resolves to sell Debo into an arranged marriage. Coumba must do what she can to hold on to her little sister.
The first thing that needs to be said is that this film is worth your time. It would be easy to walk away from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE because it has so many of the tropes one associates with worthy, art house cinema that festivals thrive on and multiplexes avoid. The premise makes it sound like an excruciatingly bleak affair, but then it represents the stark reality of life and culture not often seen on British screens. Moreover, it is lighter in tone than one might imagine. Teicher adopts the naturalistic approach that Mike Leigh utilises which will thrill some cinephiles and repel others. TATBT features some exquisitely small performances, especially from our heroine Coumba, played with poignant delicacy by Dior Ka. The heart warming/breaking bond she shares with her little sister Debo (Oumul Ka) is as beautiful as it is believable, from the opening shot to the tear inducing denouement. The family as a whole are simply good people trying to cope as best they can under a cruel set of circumstances. The father (Mouhamed Diallo) may seem callously unfeeling towards his youngest daughter, whom he is selling as if she were a goat, but this is common within the microcosm of these characters culture. He means no ill will, he is doing what he genuinely feels is best for his family, even if that is organising the purchase and presumed rape of his 11-year-old child. Both his son and wife find this troubling but acceptable because it is, as they say, ‘God’s will.’ The Father is not even considered an antagonist, that role belongs to the village elder who, in 80-seconds worth of screen time conducts one of the coldest acts of casual life changing callousness in recent cinema history, delivered with a chilling lack of emotion. This is counter weighted by the genuine good nature and kindness of the other characters, particularly the selflessness of Amady (Cheikh Dia), Coumba’s would be suitor.
This sprawling yet understated drama unfolds against a beautiful backdrop, the picturesque horizons of Senegal are shot with a slow, methodical approach that is spell binding to behold. Like the panoramas of Peter Weir or the lovingly crafted mis en scéne of Jean Pierre Jeunet, Teicher and his cinematographer Chris Collins paint a picture with every frame. The music of Jay Wadley also deserves high praise, as it ranges from the catchy percussion that accompanies Coumba on her daily routine to the more somber and foreboding themes that punctuate the seriousness of their plight. These sequences are pushed along with extensive but never over-used montages (some very fine cutting by editor Sofi Marshall), which certainly helps the pace during those occasional moments where the action lags a bit, but even then the film never looks anything less than stunning. These shots are off-set with a drama that is predominantly about what is not said, and that which is implied with the smallest glance or half smile, or barely widening eye. In some respects it echoes such dramas as THE REMAINS OF THE DAY or SENSE AND SENSIBILTY. The drama lies in the frustration of social acceptability, what is expected of one based on your gender, social standing and status with in the family. TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE is not an easy watch, and nobody would blame you for merrily skipping to the next screen for a less challenging but more raucous filmic affair. However, you would be missing a grand cinematic experience which is very much worth your time, for it is a fine demonstration of how a film can be so small and so large, so sorrowful and so uplifting at the same time.
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