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Difference Maker

Jeremy Teicher helps young Africans tell the world 'This Is Us.'

American Jeremy Teicher teaches youths in Senegal how to be filmmakers who tell their own stories.

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"Her marriage was forced," she says in the narration, contrasting one young mother to the schoolgirls writing in their notebooks. "I think if she had the choice, she would have asked to go to school."

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"I just want early marriage to stop. I want kids to be left free to go to school," Dior adds in a Monitor interview via Skype (Teicher interpreted from her French).

Project This is Us has been used as a teaching tool in the United States.

"There's very little out there to share Africa with children," says Sarah Nehrling, program coordinator at CyberSmart Africa in Senegal, who played an informal role as an adviser to Teicher. "Something as banal as a chicken running across the courtyard [in one of the films] will provoke a discussion by the kids," she says of showings she's attended in American classrooms.

The project was a finalist among eight other short documentaries at the 2011 Student Academy Awards.

Now Teicher is taking his work in a new direction – developing a fictional feature film. It's a realistic story about a teenage girl from a remote Senegalese farming village who hatches a secret plan to defy the village elder and save her 11-year-old sister from an arranged marriage.

He consulted with the students and drew from their personal experiences as he wrote a loose script, then returned to the village this summer to film it. All the actors are local – nonactors really. Many of the details emerged through improvisation.

Challenges ranged from maintaining sensitive camera equipment during a monsoon to maintaining everyone's patience as they worked long, intense hours.

"There's no way to be successful in an environment like that without immersing yourself in the culture and the people," says Chris Collins, the film's director of photography and an acquaintance of Teicher's from high school. "Jeremy was good about doing that and setting an example."

Teicher is currently editing the film in New York. He plans to submit it to film festivals and hopes to find a distributor.

Teicher paid all the actors and gave 10 percent of the funds raised to make the film to the local school. A portion of future proceeds will support the school as well.

Dior, the first in her family to attend school, plays one of the main characters.

"We want that this film is a big hit everywhere," she says. "Jeremy is a person who believes in what he does and believes it will be successful. And we who work with Jeremy believe that, too."

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