New film sheds light on forced and early marriage in Senegal

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I first travelled to the village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal in the fall of 2008 on a semester abroad through my University. I spent 3 weeks working with a group of village students, making short videos about their everyday lives. I had no idea that the stories they’d share would open a powerful window into the world of forced early marriage, revealing the deeply conflicting emotions behind this global issue.

The students and I are now are releasing a feature film inspired by their stories. The film is a powerful new voice from Africa’s young generation, and adds an essential new perspective to the global conversation on child marriage. Titled TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE, the film has already been screened at the BFI London Film Festival, the Montreal Film Festival and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and is set to be screened at more festivals in 2013.

I had no idea early marriage even existed in the villages I filmed

When I arrived in Senegal back in 2008, I never expected that I’d be embarking on a multi-year collaboration tackling this important social concern. As a matter of fact, I had no real idea that early marriage even existed in the village.

My work started as an educational project making short films with the students about simple subjects: homework, cooking meals, chores at home, and other facets of day-to-day village life.

Over time, I learned that this group of kids – many of them in their late teens, only a few years younger than me – were the first people in the history of their village to ever get a formal education. (The first school was not built in Sinthiou Mbadane until the year 2000.) Before then, education was simply not an option. Ancient traditions and strict religious rules governed village life.

In 2010, two years since my first trip to Africa, I received a fellowship to return to Sinthiou Mbadane and continue working with the same group of students, turning their short stories about everyday village life into a documentary film. I told the students that this documentary was an opportunity for them to have their voices heard around the world. A contingent of teenage girls stepped forward—they had a new story they wanted to share.

The deep divide between old and young in their attitude toward education and early marriage

The girls took cameras into their homes, conducting interviews and writing their own narrations. As I reviewed their footage, my jaw dropped: the girls filmed interviews with 16 year old mothers, earnestly explaining to the camera that they were pulled out of school at age 11 and married off. These young mothers were related to my students—sisters, cousins. The footage went on to show the students in conversation with the village elders, trying in vain to explain why all their young daughters should be kept in school.

Other students stepped forward and revealed to me the deep cultural divide over education and marriage in the village. One boy explained how he was the only child out of all his siblings to be sent to school. His parents, brothers, and sisters called him “the family’s hope.”

But why, I asked, did his parents hold his siblings back? Why would they deny their kids an education? His answer was simple: they couldn’t afford to send any other kids away to school. His entire family was labouring in the fields to pay for his schoolbooks—and his siblings were forced to continue living traditional lives of farm work and marriage. Suddenly, it all made sense. Village parents were not marrying their daughters off out of malice—rather, early marriage seemed to be an economic choice.

But why didn’t the parents agree that an education would be a far better investment than a marriage? Couldn’t they see the grave disservice that they were doling out to their daughters? As an outsider, I could see the deep layers of emotions that this generational disconnect carried: the hope of the young generation striving for a bright future, and their frustration at the lack of compassion from their elders.

At the same time, I saw the care of the older generation wanting to provide for their families, and I could empathize with their fear of embracing modern education and abandoning the traditional practices of countless previous generations. I also observed – in both the students and their elders- a tangible sense of loss as their traditional village culture is slowly but surely overtaken by modernism.

With this first generation of students becoming adults, village life was about to change forever—and early marriage was right at the forefront of everybody’s thoughts, a symbol of the fundamental incompatibility between village culture and the modern world.

Capturing the story of child marriage in Senegal

I saw that we had an opportunity to capture a pivotal moment in history. The students were passionate about sharing their experience on the leading edge of this cultural evolution. As an artist, I felt it was a much richer choice to creating a living and breathing fictional narrative story rather than an anthropological documentary. The students agreed, and immediately enlisted the help of a very forward-thinking village elder to help make the project happen.

Back at home in the United States, I worked to gather the necessary resources – and in July of 2011, I returned to Sinthiou Mbadane with two American colleagues and a professional package of cinema equipment. I worked with a co-writer to develop a dramatic script based on my conversations with the students, and as we filmed the students and I would often re-write entire sections of the story together. The students and their families took on the acting roles, blending fiction with reality.

The actresses who play Coumba and Debo – the two main characters – are sisters in real life. Dior Kâ (playing Coumba) is one of the students from the documentary – the first person from her family to ever go to school. Mboural Dia, the woman who plays Coumba’s mother, was herself a child bride.

The resulting story speaks truly to the life experiences of the students and their families and addresses the issue of forced early marriage in an honest way. We consciously avoided over-dramatizing the film—my intention is for TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE to be an arresting cultural experience that challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Filmmaker Magazine called Jeremy Teicher’s debut “a smart, rhythmic and altogether respectful look at the attempts of two young women to self-actualize in a rural Senegalese village”.

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The film has been classified “U” in the United Kingdom, meaning that it should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over