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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    Jeremy Teicher (C.) works with a film crew member, Adama, on the feature film he’s creating in Senegal, which he hopes to show at festivals to raise awareness about arranged marriages between young girls and older men. His work began with documentary filmmaking at some of the country’s schools.
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When he started making short documentaries with rural children and teenagers in Senegal, Jeremy Teicher's main goal was to get himself out of the way. The kids themselves would decide how to share their lives with the world.

As the first generation to have a chance to go to school in Sinthiou Mbadane, a village about three hours' drive from Senegal's capital, Dakar, these young people soon became leaders of sorts.

"They're going around trying to convince parents to send their children to school," says the filmmaker (no relation to this reporter). "They're totally transforming their village."

The typical portrayal of rural Africans in American media "tends to leave behind this lingering feeling of pity and guilt," Mr. Teicher says. "Of course there are these tremendous challenges ... but they're happy and proud of who they are."

The subjects the students depict in the documentary project "This is Us" (projectthisisus.org) run the gamut: how to cook couscous, what it's like to study at night by candlelight because their homes have no electricity, the contrast between the life of a schoolgirl and the life of girls who are put into arranged marriages by the age of 12.

Teicher was a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., when he first visited the village. His connection was the company where his father works, CyberSmart Africa, which brings education technology to schools.

Working with students on a video project, he was inspired to raise money to come back and delve deeper by helping them make their own mini-documen-taries. Support came from Kodak, the US Embassy in Senegal, and a Lombard Public Service Fellowship.

He knows he's not the first to hand cameras to children in far-flung places.

"What's unique about this," he says, "was the process that enabled them to design the story from script to screen, so it really is their story."

In middle- and high-school classrooms, Teicher would pose questions such as, Where do you see yourselves in 10 years?

"They would look at the floor; it was almost painful to watch," he says. "But then they would take the cameras out on their own, and the same questions [would prompt] these passionate, really powerful answers."

After skits and storyboard meetings in which they opened up even more, the students did their filming and then wrote and voiced their narrations in French.

Dior Kâ created a film on arranged marriage. She shows girls in their colorful, patterned dresses as they wash dishes and care for babies.

"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."

"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."

• For more, go to: projectthisisus.org

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.


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