By Stephanie Harp | Photos by Patrick Fogarty
Filmmaker Zamzam Elmoge of Lewiston is one of four recipients of the 2021 Women of Achievement Awards from the YWCA Central Maine. At a November 7 gala event, she received the Lee Young Leadership Award; other honorees were Elise Johansen (Marcia Baxter Social Justice Award), ZamZam Mohamud (Tonie Ramsey Service Award), and Elaine Roop (Priscilla Gendron Legacy Award).
A 2020 graduate of Lewiston High School, Elmoge took a year off to complete her third film, the documentary “Everything Earned” (Amjambo Africa, January 2020, August 2021) about former LHS basketball coach Ronnie Turner and his team, which premiered at the Franco Center in July. Her previous films are “Reason 4369,” a documentary about youth in her community, and “Barayubaka,” which honors young people with big goals whose lives ended before they could accomplish them.
“I made my first film when I was 15, did my first documentary,” she said. “I knew nothing about filmmaking, nothing about cameras. I think my activism really just drove me to learn how to do it.” For “Reason 4369,” she asked local teens what changes they wanted to see in the Lewiston community, and asked them to talk about the misconceptions about the city held by people elsewhere. “I was trying to express that on a platform. And that’s how my passion for filmmaking got started.” She knew that young people of color weren’t being heard, and making a film allowed her to give them a platform.
“I was a kid, too, but I wanted to be the one who could be the outlet. Give my community a voice, especially with the things that were going on at the time.” That included a fatality following a fight, which she said led people to think Lewiston kids were violent, and she wanted to change that image. At the premiere, she could see that her art was inspiring people and that she was doing something for her community. “That’s what I dedicated myself to – just being a filmmaker to give people access to sharing their stories.”
The 19-year-old is now in her first year at Emerson College in Boston, which has opened her eyes. “Meeting people from different backgrounds really just inspires you to want to try new things,” she said. She’s looking beyond documentaries to different ways of telling the stories that are important to her. “My aim is to focus on people who look like me and have the same background as me because you don’t see that a lot. Because it’s important for people to feel recognized.” She remains dedicated to giving people platforms to share as they choose. “As people of color, we don’t really get that, especially in a small place like Maine, where it can be harder.” She knows that as a young, Black, immigrant, Muslim woman, “it’s not common to see people with my exact same identity represented in film.”
Her newest storytelling focus is the “Women Who Dream Project,” designed to inspire other young immigrant women to reach for their dreams. “We’re taught sometimes that our dreams are too big, and maybe we should let them go,” she said. Elmoge is trying to build resources to help young women believe that what they dream about could actually happen. She didn’t want to simply go to school, get married, and have a 9-to-5 job. “If someone wants that, that’s definitely fine. But I think there are some girls who want to pursue something they’re more passionate about.”
The YWCA award began in 2015 to recognize women who inspire or provide significant contributions to their community. “I would recognize myself just inspiring the community to believe, achieve,” Elmoge said. She has taken on a number of leadership roles in her young life, including at Seeds of Peace Camp, the 21st Century Leadership Club at LHS, and Gateway Community Services. The award surprised her. “I never really thought people were recognizing the work I was doing. I would recognize it, and my friends would. But I thought to myself, ‘Now older people are recognizing it, too.’ ”
Elmoge has been making films for four years. “It gets tough sometimes, especially because I ask myself, ‘Am I telling this person’s story the right way?’ With editing and filmmaking, you’re the person executing it, so you have to make sure you’re telling it the right way. I wouldn’t want something I’m sharing to be interpreted in a way that they don’t want it to be. It definitely takes a lot of emotional strength, mental strength, and to firmly believe that you can do it.” Elmoge certainly has the strength, and the belief, to make it happen