Many of the video shorts began as stories written over the course of this school year. The assignment was for students to explore the perceptions they had about the United States before they arrived, and how those ideas have shifted over time.
As you might imagine, the resulting responses were as diverse as the students' backgrounds. The documentary segments deal with the pressures of being part of a new generation and of honoring one's past while embracing one's future. The identification of home and the concept of safety. The dreams of stardom that seem just out of reach. Most teenagers experience a lifting of the veil; for immigrants, that coming-of-age is often harsher and more complex.
But while the themes are weighty (indeed, at a recent advance screening at the Telling Room's Commercial Street location, the kids and their Telling Room teachers all agreed that everyone looked so serious!), there are moments that will make viewers smile, and even laugh.
The teenagers whooped and hollered when Ali Aljubyly, from Iraq, showed up on screen wearing a king's crown and cape; his piece was one of several that employed special effects (in another, multiple incarnations of Ralph Houanche, a Haitian immigrant, appear simultaneously in the same classroom). Filmed at the Portland Public Library, the video showed a typically boisterous Ali alternating between reading a book in street clothes and finding himself in its pages dressed as royalty. It spoke to the simple, if ambitious, goal of achieving fame — of living a life that will go down in history.
Feisty Edna Adan, from Somalia, also got some chuckles when she mused on children and childhood while sitting on the swingset at the Reiche Community School playground. We may associate children at first with bodily functions and noisiness, but they also serve to provide a comparison between "drama-free" youth and "complicated adulthood." Here's another of Edna's observations worth musing on: "My family didn't even start locking their doors until they came to America."
However difficult these realizations might be and whatever challenges they might present, not one of the 15 teenagers seemed discouraged. (At the SPACE Gallery screening, the short films will be presented in groups of five with time in between to ask the participants questions.)
When Jolie Semuhoza, from Rwanda, first encountered homelessness and poverty in the United States, she thought, "That can't be — it's America."
But the soft-spoken and soulful young woman soon came to apprehend that such trials exist here, too. "My mind still isn't settled," she says in a voiceover, while exploring the grounds of an abandoned, boarded-up house in the West End. She vows to combat poverty, hunger, and sickness.
Similarly, Maryama Abdi (a miscommunication on her family's immigration papers legally changed her name to "Maryan"), from Somalia, is determined to overcome adversity. In the documentary's most tear-jerking segment, Maryama stands on the East End Beach, staring out onto the water, and remembering her beloved grandmother, who had to return to Somalia. Maryama notes the various obstacles she is primed to tackle: She is an immigrant, a Muslim, a woman, and a person with dark skin. "I will make your dreams come true, grandmother," she says, gazing toward the horizon.