Aicha Cherif is Using Storytelling to Inspire People to Vote on Her Behalf
By Alyssa Klein
Aicha Cherif is a force. At 17, she’s a seasoned activist fighting across multiple issue areas. She’s got film credits to her name. And she’s just getting started.
Born in Guinea, West Africa, Cherif has been a resident of New York City’s Lower East Side since she was one. In Guinea, she was at risk of female genital mutilation. Her mom, not wanting her to undergo the procedure, sent her to the U.S. to live with her grandparents. Years later, Cherif learned that every woman in her family has undergone the procedure, a revelation she used for the focus of her directorial debut. Cut, which she made when she was 15, sheds light on the practice of female genital mutilation through her family’s story. She made it as a member of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, an organization that jump-started both her interest in activism and filmmaking.
In 2017, Cherif was accepted to be a Tribeca Film Fellow through the prestigious Tribeca Film Institute. She made her second short there, I Am the Only One, which tells the story of her fractured relationship with her mother as a result of their separation.
This fall, the high school senior has her eyes on the midterms. She can’t vote herself, both due to her age and citizenship (when she turns 18 next year she won’t be eligible to vote because she’s not a U.S. citizen). So she’s sharing her story to inspire those who can vote to vote on her behalf. She’s doing so as a key member of The Love Vote, a nonprofit organization founded by New York City-based high school teacher and filmmaker, Esther de Rothschild, that’s using storytelling to move people who can vote to vote on behalf of the 50 million Americans who can’t. Cherif is both The Love Vote’s Outreach Director and a Mover, someone who can’t vote who shares their story to move people to vote. In her video, she talks about being a high school student in 2018, and the fear of gun violence that so many young people across the country face.
“I shouldn't have to fear for my life in school, nor should I fear walking around my neighborhood,” Cherif wrote when the video was first released. Since she’s too young to vote, she says it’s important that people who are old enough show up to the polls with young people in mind.
With just a few weeks to go until Election Day, Cherif took time out of her busy week to share her story for the latest Storyteller Spotlight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about stories. Tell us about your own story…
I’m a senior at School of the Future High School in New York City. I was born in Guinea, West Africa, but I moved to New York when I was one. I was at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation, so my mom decided to send me to America to live with my grandparents. I’ve lived with them in the Lower East Side ever since.
How did you get involved in film?
Being in the Lower East Side, I joined an organization called the Lower Eastside Girls Club, which started a lot of my activism and my passion for film. I then made a film that was focused on female genital mutilation, told through the perspective of my family. It wasn’t just statistics, it was actually real women who have been through the process.
I then applied to a fellowship at the Tribeca Film Institute. There, I made a ten-minute short exploring the relationship between me and my mother. That was an extremely hard process, but it was really fun because I was able to figure out a lot about who I was and what my story is. I was able to reflect on what happened in Guinea when I was younger and why things are the way they are today. And then I joined The Love Vote, which sort of amalgamated what I love: storytelling and activism. And now I’m applying to college.
How are you using storytelling in your work at The Love Vote?
The medium that we use at The Love Vote is film. That’s what attracted me to join the organization in the first place. There’s a lot of nonprofits who have film aspects, but with the quality of The Love Vote videos, you can tell that there’s real filmmakers behind it and people who understand the craft. The main sort of ethos of The Love Vote is for people to share their own personal stories. I find that a lot of media is polarizing, and doesn’t really focus on the people that these big headlines are talking about. It’s a lot of throwing around phrases and headlines like “DACA” and “immigration,” without understanding who the people are who are actually being impacted. The Love Vote is really focusing on the humanity of these issues, whether you’re too young to vote or you’re formally disenfranchised or you’re not a U.S. citizen. It’s really trying to connect with the story, which I think can actually bring people together, rather than making it about a candidate or someone we hate in politics.
What’s the story that you’ve chosen to tell to move people to vote on your behalf?
I’d already made films on my relationship with my immigration status, but I hadn't really focused on what it means to be a student in this generation. Before the big debate about gun violence, there was a shooting near the Lower Eastside Girls Club. It was actually one of my friend’s friends, and she kind of knew him. It was somebody I’d seen before. While I was reflecting on that moment, the shooting in Parkland happened. And so I decided to make my video about gun violence, and my own personal connection to it. It’s the reality for so many of my peers. It’s not something that I live through every day, but I was sort of just like traumatized from that one experience.
Young people want to do so much. But a lot of the young people who are activists actually can’t vote. I thought it was perfect to make my video about me being young and me wanting action on gun violence. There’s a lot of people who want to help us, a lot of the adults who can vote. I wanted to let them promise me to vote, so then I know that people are showing up for the midterms and local elections.
Why does it matter to you who’s telling the stories?
It’s so important who’s telling stories because the way stories are going to be authentic is if people from the community are telling them. So if it’s someone from DACA, it should be a DACA recipient. If it’s someone that is experiencing gun violence, it should be someone who’s experiencing it. That’s how you get the raw and real stories, because they aren’t trying to write from a different perspective. They’re only writing from their own perspective.
Do you know what you want to do for college?
I want to study film. And I think I also want to study anthropology. I think focusing on culture will be helpful for documentary filmmaking.
If you were to make a movie about this current moment in U.S. history, what kind of story would you want to tell?
So there’s a filmmaker I really like, Frederick Wiseman. He does a lot of observational storytelling and cinéma vérité. If I was to make a film about the current state, I think I’d make something that’s completely observational and sort of let people decide on their own what the state is like. I’d probably follow teenagers. It’d be doc style, but there would be no interviews, no following one person. It would essentially be what it means to be a student, or someone who’s going through deportation. And then all the things that are happening through their daily lives, which could speak for themselves. I feel like it’s the little conversations that people are having in their own homes that people aren’t seeing.
Why does representation matter to you in film?
I know this has been said before, “you have to see it to believe it,” but if all the best films in the world, our “masterpieces,” our “classics,” are all told from the same perspective, I’m not going to believe I can be part of that. Never when we speak about “masterpieces” do we mention women or people of color. That’s why representation is important for me. I’m subconsciously going to think I don’t belong in this industry because the people who we admire in it have nothing to do with me. It’s mostly white males, and that’s just not who I am. The films I do like aren’t seen as these great films.
I also think representation is important because if we’re speaking about it through history, through our current time now, if people aren’t documenting their stories, there’s going to again be that same perspective dominating the curriculums in future high schools. Or it’s going to be like “oh, this is what it’s like to be under this current climate.” But if more people are telling their stories, you can hear the perspectives from teenage girls, older people, everyone, and not just one view.
For those of you that can vote during the 2018 midterms, promise to vote on Aicha Cherif’s behalf by going here.