In Focus: Reflections on a SFIFF experience by Jeremy Teicher

Jeremy Teicher’s first feature film, Tall as the Baobab Tree, had its US premiere at SFIFF in 2013. A narrative fiction inspired by true stories, the film was shot in Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal – a small rural village with no running water or access to electricity – with nonprofessional actors and a 4-person crew. TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE was recently released on Netflix, iTunes, and other digital platforms through a partnership between SFFS and Sundance Artist Services. Read on to learn more about the film and Jeremy's SFIFF experience.

I first reached out to the San Francisco Film Society with a cold call. I knew that the San Francisco International Film Festival had a strong education program, and thought it would be a great fit for Tall as the Baobab Tree’s US premiere. But I had no idea that this one phone call would start a relationship that would lead to Tall as the Baobab Tree’s digital distribution—and eventually, to support on my next project.

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

The very beginning – inspiration behind Tall as the Baobab Tree.

I first traveled to Senegal as a documentary filmmaker, working in a rural village with a group of first-generation high school students on a short film – This Is Us – about their everyday lives.

While making This Is Us, it became clear that there was a divide between the village’s traditional culture and the new, modern world brought about by education. The students and I had an idea: we would make a narrative film, weaving fiction with reality, and tell a compelling story while capturing the emotional core of what it means to be part of the young generation of their village. It was a privilege for me as a storyteller to have the opportunity to bring this previously unheard voice to the screen. Thus, Tall as the Baobab Tree was born.

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

Making the idea a reality.

With a plan in place and a shooting date on the calendar, I only had a few months to gather the resources and actually make the production happen.

There were two core principles that I structured our production around: 1) we would use the students and their families as actors, even though they had never acted before; and 2) we should shoot the entire film on location in and around their village, which is miles away from the nearest paved road and lacks electricity.

Cinematographer Chris Collins designed a highly portable camera package that would keep us light on our feet, ready to adapt to anything. The crew and I traveled to the village every day on a horse-drawn cart loaded with all of our gear. We decided to use two cameras to most effectively capture natural moments as they unfolded. Back home, editor Sofi Marshall did an amazing job cutting our almost documentary-style footage together with an emotional, narrative sensibility.

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

A still from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE

We pulled it off! Next, on to the hard part.

When I started making Tall as the Baobab Tree, I didn’t have any relationships to the indie film world: I hadn’t first made a festival gem of a short film, I hadn’t won any grants…. The project was definitely not on anybody’s radar.

So I started from the ground up. I did my research, found some festivals that I thought would be a good fit, and pitched away. Baobab is a peaceful film that brings people closer together through intimacy and honesty, rather than seeking to entertain people through a highly dramatized plot. With persistence, I spoke to some awesome festival programmers who really connected with Tall as the Baobab Tree’s naturalistic storytelling approach—including Rod Armstrong at SFIFF.

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Finding a home with the SFFS

At San Francisco International Film Festival, Tall as the Baobab Tree had educational screenings both in theaters and in classrooms, plus regular theatrical screenings for the public festival audience.

Joanne Parsont and her colleagues in the Film Society’s Education team saw that Tall as the Baobab Tree had the potential to connect with young audiences here in the US – and the local school community seemed to agree with them. Those teachers rolled deep!

Seriously, nothing beats doing a Q&A for a room packed with hundreds of teenagers. They came prepared to grill me, too – the Film Society had prepared a special study guide just for Tall as the Baobab Tree. 

As part of the “Schools at the Festival” program, I also got to leave the theater and visit classrooms where small groups of kids had already watched the film and were pumped to discuss it with me. While speaking with hundreds of students at once was exhilarating, talking with a group of 15 students who were all passionate about Tall as the Baobab Tree was nothing short of inspiring.

First comes festivals, then comes…

Tall as the Baobab Tree had a strong festival run, screening around the world for many months and even picking up a few awards. It was absolutely amazing to see our story resonating with so many people, especially considering the film’s humble origins.

But like many independent films, the real challenge came in finding an audience outside of the cinephile world. And although we had experienced success on our festival circuit, it was becoming clear that a traditional theatrical release wasn’t in the cards for Baobab.

Enter SFFS. Through a partnership with Sundance Artist Services, the SF Film Society can select a handful of films to release that otherwise might never had been distributed.

Although self-releasing is an increasingly powerful option, having the support of the Film Society and Artist Services has been extremely valuable in sharing Tall as the Baobab Tree with a wider audience.


The next chapter.

On my next project, I’m excited to point the camera inwards and take a look at American culture. The film will take place in the world of elite athletics, and is about a young distance runner in the midst of her first Olympic Trials – featuring real Olympic athletes in the cast.

But of course, all the excitement in the world isn’t enough to get a movie made. You need support, financing, and a good team. Although SFFS is famous for its grants, I would definitely encourage filmmakers to check out the other programs that are available. Filmmaker 360’s “FilmHouse” residency program has been a wonderful resource for my team, providing office space for our producer (Laura Wagner) and mentorship as we develop the project.

So to any filmmaker lucky enough to be a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, I implore you: take advantage of this opportunity and explore all that SFFS has to offer. They’re a passionate team of artist supporters, and your screening at the festival could be just the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  

Check out the trailer for TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE below.