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Full Bloom: African Baobab in "Fad'jal" by Safi Faye

A species of tree that can reach tremendous age and be a conduit for history and community, the baobab resembles a cinema.
Patrick Holzapfel
““They carried me to a particular spot where I saw a herd of antelopes; but I laid aside all thoughts of sport, as soon as I perceived a tree of a prodigious thickness, which drew my whole attention.”
—Michel Adanson
After watching Safi Faye’s masterly Fad’jal in an air-conditioned cinema on a muggy summer day, I had a peculiar dream. In this dream, I went to see the film again but the cinema was neither air-conditioned nor was it a normal cinema space at all. Instead, this cinema was inside the huge African baobab which proudly protects the eponymous village and its inhabitants who gather under it to recount their history in the film. In my dream, I put my ear against the trunk and heard chuckling sounds. I was not sure if it belonged to bees, evil spirits, or a whirling projector. I had to enter through a narrow corridor left open by two of its trunks growing next to one other. Inside, it was pitch-black and I felt a strong urge to escape again—until the soft light of the film filled the wooden hollow with beauty. Then I became aware of the scent. It was a scent I knew. It smelled like something I thought I had forgotten a long time ago: memories.
Although the people in Faye’s film about life in Fadial, a village close to the west coast of Senegal, never enter the trunk of what can be considered to be the spiritual center of their home, there is a way into the tree. Quite literally, as photographs and videos (the tree is a tourist attraction today) of the so-called Tree of Words, which is more than 800 years old, testify, but also in a metaphorical sense. Faye shows elders and youth gathering under different trees. One is the historic baobab and one is a kapok tree. An old man, a so-called griot, a praise-singer and historian, together with some colleagues, tells the young generation about the history of their agricultural village (mostly living off millet and peanuts) which was founded by a woman, Mbang Fadial, in the 16th century. The baobab is older than the village. 800 years is not even old for an Adansonia digitata (ridiculously named after its European “discoverer,” Michel Adanson). Despite the large number of baobabs dying in recent years, probably due to increasingly extreme droughts, the oldest of them are said to reach up to 2,500 years of age. Some of them lived at the same time as Aristotle, who would have had a lot to say about the way knowledge is protected by those conversing under the trees. Without wanting to stress the metaphor too much, these trees really bear some resemblance to an ideal cinema. As places of social gathering, telling stories, collective memory, and mummification of time, they could certainly serve as an example to the seventh art.
The film follows the narration of those griots, who occupy the lower rung of the Serer social structure and used to be buried inside hollow baobabs for mummification. Like a carefully archived film, their bodies survived for a long time and many have heard their haunting music and stories from deep inside dead trees. Fad’jal, which is the third film in Faye’s stunning oeuvre, is an ethnographic account that follows the traditions of those living in the village. They harvest, celebrate, give birth, celebrate, die, and celebrate. Life doesn’t move like a hounded antelope, it circles like the ring of stems the baobab is made of, revolving around an empty center. This center, a hollow trunk or a forgotten memory, may never be accessed by the living.
As the film progresses we understand that life in the village is held together by women. While men debate past and future under the trees, which serve as the coolest spots in the barren landscape, women work. Thus Faye poses a real question as to who is keeping memory alive. Those who remember or those who live? It’s more than fitting that the baobab, which looks to many as if it were planted upside down, is also called the tree of life. There is no memory without life. A couple of years ago I saw The Weavers, an early silent by the Manaki brothers in which they filmed their aunt spinning and weaving. By then, Despina, as she was called, was 114 years old and I was completely stunned to see a person who was born in the 18th century moving. However, nothing prepared me for a meeting with a protagonist, the baobab, that was born in the 12th century.
But the trees the villagers gather under are not some highly protected statues or confined places. People lean against the baobab, children climb the kapok tree. In fact, every part of the baobab tree is valuable to life. The bark can be turned into clothing, the seeds are used to make oils, the leaves are edible, the trunks store water as well as giving home to bees, and the fruit is extraordinarily rich in nutrients and antioxidants. The places under the trees are open, everyone has access to them, and, while history is told, we can hear the sounds of the nearby village. Life goes on while we remember. Faye shows how the villagers plant a new tree for every child that is born. Thus memory grows with a person like a shadow growing with the light. In the beginning of the film we can read a fitting quote by Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ: “In Africa, an old men that dies, is a library that’s on fire.“ In the case of Fad’jal, this public library is underneath and inside the trees.
The truth is, except in my dreams, I will remain outside. Fad’jalis a rare film which lets us see the world through the eyes of what we have designated as the Other. Faye, who worked with Jean Rouch before making such great films as Kaddu Beykat (1976), is considered to be the first female Sub-Saharan African film director of a feature film. Almost 50 years later, her perspective is still largely underrepresented in the world of film.
From where I am, I can only stand in awe. I can observe the leaves and dances, listen to stories told and words sung, and learn as much as I can. The trees will survive me. I can bury my secrets and memories in their trunks and accept that I was just a tiny seedling growing in their shadow.
Listen more often to things than to beings.
Hear the fire’s voice,
Hear the voice of water
Hear, in the wind, the sobbing of
the trees
It is the breath of the ancestors
—from “Breaths“ by Birago Diop
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.


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