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