Immigration is an issue. Immigrants are human beings.

That distinction gets lost much of the time, according to local filmmaker David Meiklejohn.

“People talk about this as a concept, but meeting these students, working with them, is just a reminder that you can’t make a sweeping generalization about an issue like this,” he said. “Everyone’s situation is totally different — similar circumstances, but wildly different.”

Meiklejohn is talking about his involvement with “The Whole World Waiting.” The documentary project involves Meiklejohn, Portland youth activist and hip-hop artist Sonya Tomlinson (a.k.a. Sontiago) and 15 of the students at The Telling Room, a nonprofit Portland writing center that provides a variety of creative writing and job-related skills for students ages 6 to 18.

“Sonya works on the writing side with the kids,” said Meiklejohn, “and they came to me with an idea that students would write a story, poem or spoken-word piece about a myth they had about America before they came here, and the moment when they came up against the reality of that myth after they arrived.”

Then it was Meiklejohn’s job to help the student’s visualize their ideas on film.

“Most were pretty simple, but some had a conceptual idea that was tricky to pull off,” he said. “For example, Aden’s from Somalia, and his father had given him the choice of tending the goats or studying the Koran. He chose goats. But when he came to America, he had no idea how much he’d miss the goats, so for his piece, we took him to a goat farm in Buxton, and his story will play as a voice-over.”

In many cases, just keeping up with the students’ imagination tested Meiklejohn’s filmmaking chops. “I was feeding off of the students’ energy and imagination,” he said, “trying to create something that hadn’t been done before, and articulating that was tricky. But it allowed the students to go completely wild with their ideas.

“One said, ‘I want five versions of me sitting in class while I’m in front reading my piece.’ One said, ‘I want to be dressed as a king, inside a book, telling my story.’ The collaboration for me is the most exciting part about filmmaking. There’s something so powerful about connecting, sharing ideas then turning a group idea into something real. It’s a different type of joy.”

“The Whole World Waiting” will have a free premiere on May 24 at Space in Portland ( After that, with a little help, the film and The Telling Room students will be hitting the road.

Said Meiklejohn, “We’re planning a trip to Boston to screen it on June 2 at several similar writing programs there. For a lot of our kids, this will be their first time out of Maine and to share their stories with students like them.” (Anyone interested in helping out should check out their Kickstarter fundraising campaign:

As Meiklejohn says, working closely with people and hearing their stories informs the immigration issue in a unique way.

“I’m very sympathetic to people who come here looking for better life, but hearing their stories really personalized it,” he said. “I feel really attached to these students from working alongside them. That’s the power of The Telling Room.”

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.




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