‘Baobab no Kioku’

Death of a tree of life

by Mark Schilling

Seiichi Motohashi’s documentaries often take environmental destruction as their theme, starting with his first, “Nadja no Mura” (“Nadja’s Village”), in 1998 and continuing with “Alexei to Izumi” (“Alexei’s Spring,” 2002) and his new film “Baobab no Kioku” (“A Thousand Year Song of Baobab”).

The first two films depict villagers living near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, despite the dangerous levels of radiation. The latest focuses on rural Africans still living in close, traditional connection with nature, while their urban cousins pursue environmentally destructive development.

Motohashi is more interested in celebrating his subjects’ lives than in attacking the forces, corporate and governmental, bent on ruining them. This may sound soft, like writing fluffy “human interest” stories in a war zone, but Motohashi visited the Chernobyl area repeatedly for years, winning the trust of the villagers, while discreetly recording the arc of their lives, from public celebrations to intimate crises. He captured a reality that the hundreds of foreign reporters, chasing deadlines or pursuing an agenda, missed or ignored.

In his new film, Motohashi again delves far deeper than the typical documentary, beginning with his title tree.

Baobab no Kioku
Director Seiichi Motohashi
Run Time 102 minutes
Language Japanese, French, Wolof

Motohashi saw his first baobob — a tree that grows to an enormous size and lives for more than a thousand years — on a visit to Kenya in 1973. He encountered the baobab again when he covered the Paris-to-Dakar rally in 1989 and 1990 — and began to learn about the central role it plays in local people’s lives, providing sustenance, medicine, fuel and a living connection to the world of gods and ghosts.

For his new film, he went to the village of Touba Toul, 30 km west of Dakar, where he recorded the changing of the seasons and the planting of millet and peanuts, the two main crops. His focus, though, is the still abundant baobab. The villagers feed the leaves to their animals, or dry and pound them into a nutritious powder called lalo; they pick up its fallen twigs for firewood, while using its bark to make rope, its pulp to make juice and its roots to make medicine; and they commune with the spirits of the dead that are said to inhabit it.

Motohashi found a hero in Modou, a 12-year-old boy who plays soccer with his friends, tends to his father’s cows and goes to the village Koran school. (He is too busy working to attend the public school where lessons are taught in French, a key to advancement in Senegalese society.)

This existence may be one long drought away from destitution, but Modou and his family, friends and neighbors live it with the sort of day-to-day peace, harmony and joy that — to outsiders used to media images of African starvation and violence — may seem either incredible or inspiring.

I fall into latter camp, not because I have a naive belief in the glories of the simple life, but because “Baobab” persuaded me with the honesty of its investigation, which does not cover up the negatives.

We see that Modou’s father, a pompous little man, is sacrificing his son’s future for his own economic gain. The public-school teacher, an elegant, stately woman, encourages Modou to attend her school — she even buys him a notebook to encourage him to come, for which he is grateful — but she cannot easily challenge his father. For Modou there is no happy ending.

Nonetheless, the villagers still reap the bounty of the baobab, despite the advent of televisions and cell phones. They still smile and laugh, while treating each other with kindness and respect.

But, as “Baobab no Kioku” reminds us with its final, devastating images, this way of life is probably doomed. More and more Senegalese see the baobab not as a source of natural riches and spirituality, but as an impediment to the latest strip mine or real-estate scheme.

Similar devastation in the name of development occurred in Japan, as Motohashi’s generation knows only too well, but the younger generation has mostly forgotten. At least, with this film, we’ll have an unblinkingly clear record of what we are missing.