analysisBy Stephanie Le Lievre
A sensitive and powerful new film, which blurs reality and fiction, adds an important voice to the struggle against child marriage.
Leaning against a dusty well in a rural village in western Senegal, a mother is talking to her teenage daughter, trying to reassure her about the marriage that has been arranged for her 11-year-old sister, Debo.
"You know I don't want to give my daughter away," she says. "You know, I got married when I was little, but you see it didn't make me a worse person. What any woman would want, I have. I have enough to make any person happy."
This particular exchange is a fictional scene from the new film Tall as the Baobab Tree, but the premise of the conversation is by no means fantasy.
In fact, Mboural Dia, the actress playing the part of the mother, was herself a child bride, and in Senegal as a whole, an estimated 33% of girls are married before they reach their 18th birthday.
The practice is even more widespread in some other countries - in Malawi the figure is closer to 50%, and in Niger it's around 75% - and according to Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator at Girls Not Brides, child marriage "holds girls back." It is an infringement of girls' rights, can threaten their health, and makes them more likely to drop out of school, contributing not just to their personal underdevelopment but that of the whole community.
Despite this, however, the practice has proven highly resistant to change in many areas and is intricately bound up with dynamics related to poverty and underdevelopment as well as tradition, culture and modernity.
It is this complexity that Jeremy Teicher aims to confront in Tall as the Baobab Tree, a film which dances entrancingly on the border of fiction and reality, and which approaches the issue with empathy and respect.
Tall as the Baobab Tree focuses on two sisters, Coumba and Debo, who are torn between their traditional background and their dreams for the future. They are among the first in their village to go to school, but after their brother falls and breaks his leg, a marriage is planned for Debo, in the hope her dowry or bride price can pay for her brother's medical treatment.
The plot for Tall as the Baobab Tree was devised by Teicher along with students from Sinthiou Mbadane and is based on stories from their own lives.
The film is acted by students and members of their community speaking in the local language of Pulaar and was shot in the village. Often the cast improvised, drawing on their own experiences.
The result is a remarkable and sensitive film which blurs the line between fiction and reality, a tension which is beautifully captured in what Teicher describes as one of his favourite moments. Out in a field, two characters - one of whom is soon to go to university - are talking. "Don't forget about me", says the one destined to stay in the village.
For Teicher, this was "very powerful to the film, because earlier, that older brother is explaining that it would have been him who went to school if it were built just a few years earlier. And that's true: that guy [playing the brother] is in his mid-twenties. He missed the boat on education. That conversation ... of course it was sort of staged, but it was also true. I didn't tell him to say 'don't forget about me'."
An old ball and chain
Education can be central to the development of rural communities and to eradicating child marriage. In the film, the girls' father explains that he will not marry off his elder daughter Coumba because she is "too far along in school."And as Sundaram explains, "education not only allows girls to grow intellectually and mature into their own person, but it offers greater opportunities to make a living and contribute economically to their families and communities."
Education can thus offer a disincentive for early marriage, which is often driven by economic concerns. In Senegal, as in other countries where early marriage is prevalent, household wealth is closely associated with the practice; girls from the poorest 20% of families are more than five times as likely to be married before 18 as girls from the richest families, especially in rural areas.
Indeed, in Tall as the Baobab Tree, it is the injury to the girls' brother that compels the family to arrange a marriage; marrying off a daughter can be a way to reduce the number of mouths a family has to feed, and may be a way of generating income through a bride price or dowry. However, while that may be the short-term effect, Sundaram points out that "we know that when girls are married off young, they and their families tend to stay poor."
Addressing poverty and underdevelopment is a central part of eradicating child marriage, but Sundaram argues that starting dialogue and raising awareness of the self-propelling cycle of child marriage is also key. She highlights some of the work done by the organisation Tostan, for example, which is focused on spearheading dialogue at the local level, and suggest Tall as the Baobab Tree could have a similar effect.
"Child marriage is traditionally a taboo subject," she says, "and films like this, which are not particularly prescriptive, start conversations between girls, their families and community leaders. And this leads to social change." In fact, she explains, they've seen precisely this effect on the ground in Senegal, where the film has been shown in over 60 schools and is sparking conversation. "I think one of the things which the film does, which is actually quite rare, is it puts the girls front and centre," she adds. "It's their story."
Teicher points out that he never set out to create a traditional advocacy film, but that may have in fact enhanced its power as one. "The goal of the project was to capture a slice of life, and let the reality speak for itself, rather than trying to make a more traditional advocacy film," he says. "I think that's why the film ultimately is a very effective advocacy tool, because it doesn't feel like it's an advocacy film...When we show it in Africa it's very effective because it feels respectful to everybody."
From West African to Yemeni audiences, people can empathise with the situation of the characters in the film, caught between the old world and the new. "That's been really great, to see that impact, which is people finally feeling that they have a film that speaks to them, that's not some tear-jerking, propaganda film."
One step forward
As effective a film such as Tall as the Baobab Tree can be in sparking dialogue, however, it also highlights - perhaps inadvertently and all the more tragically for it - the difficulty of changing practices.
Soon after filming ended, Oumoul Kâ, who played Debo, was pulled out of school and had a marriage arranged for her. However, she ran away from her husband-to-be to continue her education. Her elder sister Dior, who played Coumba, meanwhile dropped out of school during her senior year and married a man from M'bour. She had a baby soon after, and she says she wants to return to school once her child is older.
"Not everyone finished school that I thought might have finished school", Teicher explains, though many are still in education, and a couple of members of the original class are going on to university. "I would have liked everyone to finish school, but it speaks to the reality that we captured in the film, which is that change is one step forward and two steps back and it doesn't happen overnight."