Film highlights Senegalese children

by Jasmine Wang | 11/17/10 11:00pm

For his new documentary, "This Is Us," Jeremy Teicher '10 combined his English major, theater minor and passion for storytelling to portray the lifestyles, hardships, fears and hopes of Senegalese children. The documentary, which features footage shot by the Senegalese children themselves, had its American premiere at the Haldeman Center on Wednesday.

"It is said that documentaries are a sort of scripted reality," Teicher said. "However, when the students are able to write and film their own stories, the result could be more authentic and truthful."

Teicher was a recipient of the Lombard Fellowship, awarded by the Dickey Center for International Understanding to 15 Dartmouth students each year to fund public service projects upon graduation. He launched his project after observing that "in many African communities, all the responsibility typically fell upon one person in the family the person who is able to go to school."

Teicher said his primary motivation was to empower students of all ages to speak personally about their daily lives, and ultimately to portray the challenges these children face and the dreams they harbor. He added that he wanted his documentary to feature original stories that would not have been unearthed had he intervened too much in the filming process.

The film, which Teicher edited to be "a nice half-an-hour piece," was divided into three acts. The first act features more mundane aspects of life, such as cooking, taking care of farm animals and praying.

The second and third parts take a more serious tone. In the second act, girls in the village discuss early marriage and how it inhibited their ability to receive an education. Due to financial circumstances, many Senegalese women marry early and have to drop out of school. One girl featured in the film, who married at age nine and had two children by 15, said she "deeply regretted" being married at such a young age. Because she never learned how to write, she began spending time with younger female students, trying to make up for what she missed.

The development of education is tied closely to a community's development and modernization, students repeatedly said in the third act.

"Without education, you are nothing," a 20 year-old student said.

Boys who were the only members of their families to receive an education expressed gratitude for the opportunity, sympathizing with their "sisters and brothers who had to still work in the fields."

They referred to themselves as their "families' hope for the future."

The students stated in the film that they wanted to be "important men of the village" someday and accomplish "important deeds," including supporting their parents, battling poverty and constructing new schools so that more people could attend.

Teicher said that it was rewarding to work with the Senegalese students and that he was particularly struck by "their openness and friendliness."

"This was a great project to help the students with self-expression," he said following the film. "The students and I discussed what they wanted to share and how they wanted to be seen. Through this, I realized their tremendous strengths, passions, concerns and, most importantly, hopes for the future."

Amy Newcomb, the Dickey Center student programs officer who helped Teicher apply for the Lombard Fellowship, said she was pleased with the direction his project had taken.

"Jeremy certainly used his fellowship creatively, and it's great that something that started at Dartmouth is being brought back to Dartmouth," she said.

"This Is Us" was not widely publicized until its Nov. 3 premiere at the American Embassy in Dakar, Senegal. Teicher said he was surprised by the Senegalese audience's reaction to of his film.

"They were much more affected than Americans [would be] I think it's because we have this expectation going into a film about Africa, and so we're not as impacted," he said.

Teicher also noted a number of similarities between Senegalese and American adolescents.

"Believe it or not, there's cellphone coverage everywhere in Senegal," he said. "Thus, they were pretty accustomed to the cameras which were about the size of a Blackberry that I gave them. At noon, you'd often see the Senegalese teenagers tending to their cows, shepherding and blasting Rihanna on their phones."

Teicher said he is hopeful that he will obtain funding for similar projects in other countries, although he also said he is not entirely certain about his plans for the future.

The most important lesson to draw from his film was on the importance of education, he said.

"I went in a filmmaker, not an educator, but I now know that the only way to make a lasting impact is to find innovative and inexpensive ways to bring education, even to the most remote places on earth," he said.