Interview: Felicia Taylor on the Trickle Down Effects of a Dry Season in “Far From Home”

When Felicia Taylor traveled to Senegal to begin filming “Far From Home,” her jaw dropped when she got to know some of the children that have taken in by daaras, the local religious schools that have been taking in boys from five to 17 by the dozens as poverty has overtaken the region.

“I saw one kid recite the entire Quran – the entire Quran in 15 minutes – the words came out of his mouth so fast, it was insane,” recalls Taylor, admitting she was stunned but for all the wrong reasons. “He couldn’t have possibly understood what he was saying.”

It might have been just as inscrutable to understand how such a thing was possible if Taylor, a former correspondent for CNN International, didn’t trace things back a few steps in her new documentary short, exploring how the impact of climate change has already created profound societal implications when drought-ravaged land has decimated the need for farmers and the daaras, which once provided a pipeline for education and preparation for jobs in the fields, have become overwhelmed. Increasingly inheriting children that are difficult for their own families to take care of, some schools pass the time with intense memorization of the Quran nearly every waking hour of the day, creating breaks for meals that the kids have to beg for on the streets, relying on the generous practice of the Muslim faith to give alms to the poor for the sustenance of rice and water.

“Far From Home” bears witness to abuses of all kinds as a system that once carried a proud tradition has been infiltrated by bad actors and beset by impossible circumstances, but Taylor finds hope in the work of Maison de la Gare and its founder Issa Kouyaté, who routinely patrols the streets for talibés, those students who have left the daaras often radicalized by their experience, to give them the shelter and the resources they need to overcome any trauma and begin lives on their own terms. The film details an issue and potential solutions that are both ever-evolving, but as a snapshot of the direct ramifications that abstract environmental changes are having on society’s most vulnerable, it is quite arresting, particularly in honing in on the journey of one child Ousmane, who has been separated from his mother and does the best he can to survive on his own. With “Far From Home” in the thick of awards contention for Best Documentary short, Taylor spoke about what inspired her to make the film, learning to translate her reporting skills into filmmaking and her hopes to benefit Maison de la Gare in the years to come.

How did this come about?

It was a little bit on a dare because I’m not a filmmaker, but someone who spent considerable time in the Peace Corps was passionate about these children and had [been] thinking he wanted to adopt one of them. For some reason, they had a connection and he actually convinced his parents to let him come and live with [this family] in the [States] and they would help him get through high school. About a week before he was supposed to leave, he mysteriously died. They say that he fell off a roof and if you’ve ever been to Senegal, there is really no such thing as a roof. It’s really a corrugated tin top on most of these places. So it touched [this person] and hurt him, not knowing if his idea of bringing him to the United States incited any kind of jealousy. It was such an important story to him and I had left CNN International, so I thought okay, I’ll come and scope it out and see if we can shoot a trailer and see what can happen. And that’s what happened. It was that simple.

There’s a connection upfront that suggests how this is a much larger issue than Senegal when you see how climate change has created the conditions for greater poverty in the region. Was that link between the boys in the daara and sea change obvious to you from the start?

It wasn’t entirely obvious until I went there and saw what had happened. These kids used to stay close to their villages, and the tradition of the talibé is an honorable one. They would be able to gain these skills of being able to read and write and farm [from being taken in by the talibé], which obviously for someone who is extremely poor is obviously very valuable. Then they can take those skills back to their villages. But once there was the drought, some of these seaside towns or otherwise suburban areas could not longer be farmed and these kids could no longer be taken into cities. So once they’re 30, 50, 100 miles away from their villages, they don’t remember where they came from, and it became a direct connection, although it wasn’t an obvious one.

Because of this migration into these cities like Dakar and Saint-Louis, the Imams and the marabout [teachers] force the kids to beg because they have no other way to feed themselves, and the purpose of the film is really to reveal an injustice. I’m not critical of the [talibé] tradition at all because its intention is a good one. That’s why the film is a not-for-profit film. Neither myself nor the major investor has any intention of making any money or having it returned to us. All the money goes to the children because that’s the whole point of making a movie like this.

Was access to the daaras a challenge?

Issa Kouyaté, who runs Maison de la Gare, was what I would call our fixer and Issa would get permission from the Imams. If we didn’t get permission, we didn’t go because you can’t just wander in, but Issa would take us to the daaras where he knew the Imams the best and knew that they would cooperate because they want help. It’s not like they’re horribly evil people, but the government doesn’t really do much to punish the ones that are the worst. They go to jail for a night or maybe two and then they’re back out and they’re at it again, so it’s just a vicious cycle. In the film, you can see that at the end of the day, what happens is these kids turn into these street children as opposed to creating a society that has literacy and skills and farming, which was the intent originally behind this tradition.

Was it always intended to follow one of these children in Ousmane?

No, that was a decision that we made on the ground. I approached it as a news story and we’d meet whoever Issa had ready for us. It just seemed far more personal to focus on one child, but that was quite difficult because you don’t want to isolate one child because that targets him, so Issa assured us that not only would we get the permission from the Imam and the marabout, but also from his mother. That’s how we ended up finding his mother.

It must have been a tricky situation to know where the mother was without being able to tell her son or vice versa when these kids aren’t able to know their parents.

That was a very difficult situation [because] the obvious thing is to tell her how he is living, but then you’re going to break her heart. She has no idea that he lives like this, and she believes the tradition is a good one, so she was doing it for her child. Naturally you want to say, “Hey, we can bring your child back here,” but she lived in an 8’ by 8’ room. She had no room to have him come back to her, and she wouldn’t have been able to support him — she was pregnant with somebody else’s child, and the belief system is the more children you have, the more God has graced you with his presence. So we spent a lot of time discussing what to do about it and it’s not for us to be critical in any way, shape or form. We can’t change what is happening in this country except to expose the wrongdoing and try to make it right.

News segments these days are more and more cinematic, but as a storyteller, was making a film any different?

Yes, there is no question about it. That was one of the most difficult things for me because as a television person, you’re used to deadlines weekly if not daily and this lengthy process and constant changing of the mind depending on the kind of footage that we got and what we don’t have and what we were able to secure was a very, very enlightening experience. We didn’t know we were going to be able to talk to the mother until the last minute and we all piled into a truck and drove 14 hours to get there to meet her for a couple of hours and drove back. It’s a constantly moving process and even during the editing, things change because the story continues to evolve based on what kind of footage you have. I learned so much that I didn’t know what I was doing. [laughs]

It looked like you did.

Thank goodness I had an experienced crew from Lebanon. They were unbelievable. The eye our first cameraman Ziad [Chahoud] has is just genuinely beautiful and he would put himself in crazy situations where he would get the shot and make it beautiful without it being disastrous. I couldn’t go into a daara when we would do this because I’m a woman, but the men went in and [Ziad] saw there was beating happening, and as opposed to turning off his camera, he just took it off his shoulder so that he could still discretely be able to shoot. They knew we were there. We had permission everywhere we went.

It’s extraordinary what you captured.

And Issa is an extraordinary man. What he does on a daily basis is pretty remarkable. He has dedicated his life to helping these kids and trust me, it is not a picnic. He doesn’t live in a pretty house, but he’s dedicated his life to Maison de la Gare and getting these kids to have a real childhood. Naturally, we’ve already set up the attachment with Maison de la Gare with the hope that we will be able to raise enough money on a continuing basis and maybe even get enough funding to start to build housing for these kids, or at least a school where they can go if they don’t have actual housing and one full meal a day. The hope is we can get them off the streets and they actually do get an education.