In a scene from the rough cut of young documentarian
Rehema Trimiew ’00’s latest film, Learning to Fly, Sylvia, one
of the Zambian orphans she follows, talks about her
parent’s business before she was orphaned. The camera pans
across run-down cars, a dusty ground, employees laughing
to themselves, and zooms in to a quote hand-painted on a
tall orange wall at the entrance: "True integrity implies you
do what is right when no one is looking or when everyone
That quote echoes what Trimiew has learned as she’s dealt with the obstacles and lack of funding that filmmakers face.
"Being an orphan is a difficult thing," Sylvia says in the film. "People don’t take you for what you are, but they want what you have. So if you’re an orphan, you’re worthless." The camera pans in as she says, "What matters is what I say about myself."
You become emotionally invested in Sylvia after just a few minutes of footage, and also amazed by the 14-year-old’s maturity and articulateness. But when you find out more about Trimiew, you are amazed by the same qualities in her.
Learning to Fly is her master’s thesis for the graduate live-action film program at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
Trimiew’s parents vehemently supported her from a young age. When her White kindergarten teacher didn’t believe it was possible that 5-year-old Trimiew already knew how to read, they fought the public urban elementary school to change the curriculum. Trimiew dramatized the event in her short film Sticks and Stones (2006). Made as part of her M.F.A., it was accepted at more than 20 film festivals, received seven awards and was screened in Canada, Barbados, and France. It aired nationally on BET as part of a shorts competition.
"The middle school and high school I attended had a strong communications focus," Trimiew recalls, "so I was exposed to a lot of photography, television, and radio." She studied neurobiology at Bryn Mawr and took film and video courses at Haverford and UPenn.
After graduation she learned web design ("for fun"), spent some time freelancing, and then applied to film school at Rochester. Trimiew’s other film projects have included public service announcements on teenage pregnancy and racism in housing. She made a short documentary about why young people weren’t voting in the 2008 election. "I tend to be inspired by personal experiences that changed my perspective or made me angry," she says.
The topic of the thesis film has changed several times. "I wanted to create something that would inspire Black teens to graduate," Trimiew says. "At that time [in the early 2000s], 50 percent of kids in Rochester didn’t finish high school within four years."
Her initial idea was to follow several students from Rochester high school on a trip to Africa, as they stayed with local families and met students their age. "I wanted to affect how they perceived their own education," Trimiew says. "I planned to track them later to see who went on to college. I wanted to follow one success story—one girl who came back and appreciated more what she had in the U.S."
She hit a roadblock when she realized that people were "still too afraid in the wake of 9/11 to let kids travel overseas like that." Filmmaking lesson no. 1: be prepared to come up with an alternate plan.
Trimiew got a grant to help girls in media and taught a three-week summer program for high school students out of the community TV station at the University of Rochester. She decided to make this focus her thesis topic.
"I wanted to follow girls between the ages of 14 and 21, to show their perspectives, and also show mine," she says. "I was interested in comparing the experiences of African American girls with African girls, because they’re all Black teens, but they’re dealing with different issues. I know the perspective of the African American, but I didn’t know what to expect from the African girls."
Then she had to find a second group of girls in Rochester after running into problems with permissions. "It was hard to only work with them as part of an afterschool program," she says. "The cameras I gave them weren’t great, even compared to the ones on their cell phones. It was a challenge getting them to do homework. There were a lot of excuses—their brother broke the camera, their mother erased the footage, the battery wasn’t charged."
Connections critical in Africa
Trimiew found her way to Zambia through Maidstone Mulenga, then head of the Rochester Association of Black Journalists, who knew people in Zambia, and helped Trimiew network there. She made a key connection with Mulenga Kapwepwe of Zambia’s National Arts Council. "She helped me find the school and key members of my crew," Trimiew says. "It’s really because of her influence that things came together for me there."
Filming in Africa between May and August 2009, she initially sought orphan girls from rural areas as subjects, but practical demands required that she move to the city of Lusaka, Zambia, where her volunteer crew members could commute easily to their day jobs. She worked out of a private school, Rhodes Park, with a computer lab where she could edit the film, but was careful to choose girls whose parents were not wealthy.
Trimiew taught the girls how to use the cameras she’d convinced Radio Corporation of America to donate. "For homework, I’d tell them to introduce us to where they lived, to interview someone, to do a man-on-the-street interview." She ended up with a lot of strong footage of Sylvia. "I had taken her into a studio and gave her a list of questions. I followed her in school, and talked with her friends. I’d follow them after class, talk with them about their lives and about how they were getting by without parents."
At a screening held at a Christian youth group, the girls voted on the best student film, and the winner—Sylvia— received a computer (a G3 Mac, donated by RIT). All the girls got to keep the cameras.
Trimiew struggled with bureaucratic issues abroad as well. "I didn’t get signed releases to film the girls until the day I was leaving Zambia," she says. "There was this belief on the part of some administrators that people in the U.S. would take the images of these girls and use them inappropriately."
Her connections became critical when her project was delayed due to technical problems and her visa was running out. "I didn’t have the money to extend my visa," she says. "An administrator told me to show up the day it was to expire, and she granted me the extension. I started to see that, in filmmaking, it’s all who you know."
The final cut
After returning from Africa, Trimiew spent months trying to edit down more than 200 tapes, each containing more than an hour of footage. "I decided to start with telling Sylvia’s story and build off that," she says. She soon realized that the comparison of the American girls and the African girls would have to be a feature-length piece, which would take a lot longer than she had for her thesis deadline.
Her time in Zambia affected Trimiew’s own impressions of the United States, just as she hopes the film will affect the American teens who ultimately see it. "I noticed that the culture in Zambia is more geared toward connecting with individuals," she says. "You’re expected to respect and acknowledge others, and there’s more of a community feeling. It made me more aware that, here in the States, you can walk around feeling invisible.
"I also came back with a sense of the difference when you live in a culture where your race makes up the majority of the population," she says. "In Zambia, all of the teachers are Black, and there’s not the same sense of stigma that there is in the U.S., which interrupts the educational process, among other things."
All 10 of the girls in Zambia finished their films, whereas only two of the U.S. girls finished. "The energy in working with the girls there was just completely different," she recalls. "In Zambia, I had one student who would walk 45 minutes just to come to class. It’s another level of dedication."
Trimiew says she’d like to work on documentary films for an NGO or a non-profit, ideally internationally. She is still in touch with Sylvia; they talk through Skype. "She got the highest grade in her school on standardized tests," Trimiew says. "And there’s a film project she’s trying to do." Mercedes, one of the girls from Rochester, also wrote to tell her she got into college. "If I get the funding," she says, "I’ll do a follow-up to see where they all are now."
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