By Stephanie Harp
Few teens can look forward to the launch of their third film. But that’s what Zamzam Elmoge – who is only 18 – was doing when she paused to talk with Amjambo Africa. With its July 31 premiere, “Everything Earned” will join “Reason 4369” and “Barayubaka” on Elmoge’s already long list of accomplishments. “I started it when I was actually 17,” she said. The film follows one of very few Black high school coaches in Maine, and tells individual stories of the players on his 2019-20 team.
In her sophomore year at Lewiston High School, Elmoge first met Ronnie Turner, whom she thought was a substitute teacher. She didn’t know he also was the basketball coach for the freshman team. “When he became head coach [of the varsity team] … he came to me and asked me to work on a small film. It was supposed to be a two-week project, but it turned into this two-year project instead.” The original idea was for her to make a video. “I think he knew I made videos, but he didn’t know I made films. Films are more of an emotional thing for me. Videos are more of videotaping something.”
She didn’t tell Turner she thought the project might turn into something long term. “It just happened. Two months later, we talked about it. I said I wanted to be able to create a beautiful story out of this,” she said. But she doesn’t regret the extended time, which included Elmoge taking a gap year after high school graduation to complete the project. “The film and this process and journey, just being able to follow him and learn his story, just learning about these players and learning about their dreams – it was a privilege.”
At first, she wanted to focus on the blackness of the stories. “The majority of the players are Black; there’s only one white kid on the team,” she said. Sometimes when she interviewed them, they talked about how differently they were treated, including racial bias in the crowds. “Just these things going on in their lives. They are young Black men with dreams.”
Being able to indulge in dreams – some of the players dreamed of the NBA – is important to Elmoge. In Turner, she saw someone who supported dreaming. “Ronnie’s a person who is heavy on making sure that dreams are possible. Dreams are able to be reached. We live in a community where a lot of people are immigrants. It’s hard to support your dreams and have your dreams at the same time.”
She wanted to help the young men, she said. “I wanted to really just give these players an audience, and give Ronnie an audience. Let the world know these players, this coach. They have a story to tell. It’s not just about basketball. It’s about more than that.”
The film highlights about half of the 12-member team. “I didn’t want a fast-paced story. I wish I could tell all these stories, obviously. At the end of the day, it had to be focused on where an audience can actually get to know somebody, rather than something that just keeps going,” she said. Her film tells the stories of those who were most comfortable being vulnerable, which only happened after about a year of filming. “We didn’t really have a relationship when I first started, so it was really hard to get them to even talk about something going on in their lives.” The first time she was able to capture on camera the sort of emotion she was seeking was after the team lost a playoff game.
“Some of them didn’t have the heart to speak about their life experiences on camera, which is fine. That’s a lot to be able to pour out yourself to an audience. I understood.” Her main goal was for people to be able to connect to the film. “Even being Black,” she said. “That could be hard to talk about for some people, the experience they’ve had in America.”
Most of the players grew up in Lewiston, some in lower-income areas, some in more privileged ones. Some of the featured players graduated in 2020. “The ones who are going to be seniors this [coming] school year are actually the ones who are more invested in playing basketball in college,” she said. “I think some of them who graduated, their lives got busy. They have to help support their families. Once you graduate, it’s just expected for you to be able to do these things for your family, when you grow up in a community like this.”
In her second year of filming, she focused more on the coach. “The story never even fully formed until this year, after I had all the footage,” the filmmaker said. “When Ronnie asked me, I just started filming it. It was this day-to-day thing. I didn’t have a set idea of what the film would be about.” It wasn’t until she started editing for the first time that she really thought about the story, the players, the coach, and the audience who would see it.
The film premieres in Lewiston. “It’s something that I wanted to do to make Lewiston kids feel special, and make them know that their dreams are important. And it’s important to dream, even with the kind of places we come from, even with big families. I think it’s still important to dream.” After the premiere, she hopes to take “Everything Earned” elsewhere in Maine, and to audiences beyond the state.
“It changed my life, and how I see the world, and what my dreams are,” she said. “I’m glad the journey is coming to an end. And I’m glad about the experience I’ve had with two years of storytelling, and two years of players who had dreams.” Elmoge hopes to attend Emerson College to continue pursuing her dream of filmmaking.
“Everything Earned” premieres July 31, 6 to 8 p.m., at the Franco Center, 46 Cedar St, Lewiston.