Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Tall as the Baobab Tree

In the fourth of our series of reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Holly Young reflects on the issue of child brides through a film documenting the practice in a village in Senegal.



© Jeremy Teicher

On the face of it, Tall as the Baobab Tree is a film about child marriage. Through the moving relationship of two Senegalese sisters – Debo, the 11 year old consigned to an arranged marriage by her father following the injury of her older brother, and Coumba, her older sister committed to trying to rescue her – the film sensitively illustrates the economic, cultural and emotional context to child marriage.

The place of such an issue at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival needs little justification. While recent US legislation is evidence of progress in the movement to tackle the problem, the figures are still striking. An estimated 10 million girls are married every year before they reach 18. These numbers are notably concentrated in the developing world, with one in three girls married before 18,  and one in seven before 15. Child marriage impacts on the health, education and safety of the female in question, and has a measurable inter-generational impact. It has serious implications for economic development, let alone gender equality.

It’s rightful to be indignant about the continued existence of child marriage. It is after all, along with forced marriage, a form of modern day slavery. It is however, also easy to be indignant. What really distinguishes this film, is the way it has resisted presenting the story of these two sisters simply as a canvas for well-trodden moralising on the subject. Tall as the Baobab Tree instead offers us more depth, with a nuanced and thoughtful documentation of the issue.

Director Jeremy Teicher, in a Q&A after the screening, stated that after spending so long with the community he involved in a large part of the film’s production, he was committed to showing “all the complex shades of grey”. We are consequently offered a convincing account of the economic necessity of the decision to marry Debo, and when the economic necessity is removed, reminded of the cultural and social pressures from the community. Perhaps most poignant of all is the scene where Coumba discusses her objections with her mother, who describes how despite being married as a child, she “has enough to make any person happy’’.


© Jeremy Teicher

But Tall as the Baobab Tree is not only a film about child marriage. Teicher places the story of child marriage within a larger, more representative narrative of economic progress and urbanisation. The village in the film is on the cusp of great social and economic change: Coumba and her peers are the first in the village to receive a formal education and hold hopes of moving to the city to go to college. Throughout, education is seen to be the shining light of progress and empowerment. Yet while the lure of the city’s opportunities hang over this new generation they are not without their complications: they experience both admiration and marginalisation from the community as a result.

One of the film’s real strengths is that it avoids creating a simplistic, and moralistic, dichotomy between tradition and development. When asked in the Q&A whether the more conservative members of the community objected to the film, Teicher told the audience how supportive they had been of his efforts. Indeed, one villager agreed to play himself in the film: a conservative elder enforcing the custom of child marriage. The villagers, he said, were aware of rapid change and in response to looming modernisation welcomed the opportunity to document their culture. One of the most striking observations Teicher shared was that the majority of the generation going to college planned to return to the village afterwards, as they fought to balance opportunity with cultural and familial ties.

The pace, quiet, and subtlety of this film may leave some wanting of a little more tangible anger at its core. Teicher, however, argues that treatments of Africa too often lazily slip into sensationalising: creating an emotive caricature was never his intention. Instead, Tall as the Baobab Tree effectively unpicks the complexity of cultural change, laying bare the compromises and tensions that come with opportunity and economic development, and infusing its treatment of child marriage with a nostalgia and respect for tradition. In this moving and original film, we are gently guided to move the conversation past indignation towards constructive understanding, and to give a thought not only to human rights but to what change and economic progress feels like to those subject to development.

Tall as the Baobab Tree is now available to download on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and more through Sundance Artist Services.

To find out more about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival please click here.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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  1. Pingback: Tall as the Baobab Tree and cultural change | Tall as the Baobab Tree

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