“People call Lewiston ‘the dirty Lew,’ did you know that?”

I didn’t. I do now, thanks to filmmaker and Lewiston High student Zamzam Elmoge, director of the Lewiston- and youth-focused documentary “Reason 4369” and recent attendee of the 2019 AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab, produced by Fresh Films. Made when Elmoge was 15, the 40-minute documentary is a remarkably assured debut, thanks to Elmoge’s passion to allow her fellow Lewiston teens – many, like her, immigrants to America – tell their own stories for a change.

Zamzam Elmoge is Lewiston High School student and filmmaker. Photo by Deondra Jones

“I was inspired by my time going to the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield,” said Elmoge. “It really made me want to be an activist and a filmmaker at the same time.” Noting that Lewiston is often “frowned upon” by those in other communities (and sometimes within Lewiston itself), she said that her film was her method of combatting those uninformed perceptions. “They perceive us as drop-outs, who use drugs and violence,” she said. “So this was a way to get our voices out there. I wanted to be able to change that.”

And she has. Since its 2018 public premiere in Lewiston, “Reason 4369” has been put up for free on YouTube, and communities like Portland and Norway have requested showings of her film as well. It was a long, hard journey for a young woman who, she admits, found balancing the equally taxing grinds of school and directing to be pretty trying. Telling herself that she wouldn’t make another film until graduation, Elmoge’s path shifted when her friend and mentor at a Lewiston youth center informed her of the Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab, spurring her to – eventually – make the short video pitch that led her to become one of 20 young women from around the country to fly to Los Angeles.

Joking that “the universe was planning something,” Elmoge says that it was the enthusiastic Adriana’s obsession with actress Reese Witherspoon (a founder and avid participant in Hello Sunshine) that finally wore her down. “It was two days before deadline and I was watching old videos of the Academy Awards online, and it made me think about the filmmaker lab and all the opportunities that have been given to me in my life.” So, a month later, Elmoge was in L.A. (the other L.A.), along with 19 other young aspiring female filmmakers, meeting an impressive and inspiring array of powerful women in the movie industry (yes, including Witherspoon) and learning everything from nuts-and-bolts practical moviemaking skills to the perhaps more difficult strategies women must master to get ahead in what is still a male-dominated industry.

Elmoge particularly points out the influence of Warner Brothers Vice President Chantal Nong, who imparted her unique experience as a woman of color in the business. “She had the best advice,” said Elmoge. “It revolved around not giving up, of the challenges of being part of a minority group, and it really inspired a lot of us to keep achieving, and being ambitious.”

Ambition is not a quality Elmoge appears to lack, as she explains how her experience in L.A. (her first time on a plane since she came over from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2006) has fired her up to take on her second film, a deeply personal one inspired by the tragic loss of a friend. “Her name was Laila Al-Matrouk, and I met her at Seeds of Peace,” Elmoge said of the young Belfast activist who died in a bicycle accident last year at the age of 16. Elmoge’s new film in production, “Barayubaka,” follows a group of student activists who take it upon themselves to complete the earthly work of friends who died before they could truly make the difference they were trying to make in the world.

“Laila gave me so much wisdom and good advice for the young girl she was,” Elmoge said about her friend. “She was really ambitious and doing good in the world.” Her film, which she describes as “part-documentary and part fictional,” is “dedicated to the youth in paradise, the youth who never got to fulfill their destinies, and the kids who are still here, carrying on their legacies.”

For the now 18-year-old Elmoge, passion for change and passion for filmmaking are one. “I’m focusing on my long term goals in life to become the woman and the filmmaker I want to be,” she said, adding that she counts her parents’ reaction to seeing “Reason 4369” as one of her proudest moments. “They didn’t get the whole filmmaking thing at first. But when mom and dad saw it for the first time, it was a good feeling for me. It made me think about, maybe one day, being up on that stage and winning an award for my films, and them being so happy. Still, it’s not about being some sort of celebrity, but about me being able to make films to send their message across to different people and communities, and to impact lots of people.”

You can see “Reason 4369” on You Tube, where you can also find the documentary made by Elmoge and her colleagues about their experience at Hello Sunshine. And, to contribute to her crowdfunding campaign for “Barayubaka,” head to Elmoge’s GoFundMe page.

Coming to local screens

PMA Films
Thursday: “Voyageur.” Come celebrate Maine’s Franco-American heritage with this docu-fictional account of one time-traveling pilgrim’s voyage from Nova Scotia all down the American coast.

Space Gallery
Sunday: “Loro.” Come visit mid-2000s Italy, where a group of wealthy moguls relish in the tabloid-friendly scandals and luxury of soon-to-be-disgraced Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. With a Q&A from Bowdoin College Cinema Studies Professor Allison Copper.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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