One Day I Too Go Fly is a coming-of-age documentary that follows four African youths from different countries and socio-economic backgrounds as they pursue knowledge at America’s premier technological university – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Over four years from arrival at MIT, through visits back to their home countries, to graduation from college, the film follows their adventures as their ambitions evolve. Their dreams are anchored in the Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe they have left, but their daily realities are defined by America – by the immediate challenges in their MIT classrooms, as well as the larger social issues confronting the world outside of those classrooms. Each is forced to refine their ideas about the world and about themselves. Each must decide how much of Africa to hold on to and how much of America to absorb.
TIA: Congratulations on the launch of your latest film One Day I Too Go Fly.
Arthur Musah: Thank you. I am in awe of how far we have been able to go with the project, thanks to the community that has rallied behind the film.
TIA: Recently students from robotics teams around the world will be in the U.S. for a global robotics competition. Your first film, Naija Beta was about a group of MIT students that came to Nigeria to teach the basics of robotics to secondary school students. What was your experience filming these young students and in light of this global robotics competition do you think African countries stand a chance of winning?
AM: I think international robotics competitions are wonderful for all kinds of reasons. We live in an age of technology, so kids must learn tech early, and robotics are a fun and effective way to teach this. Competitions mean teams must form to play in a game format, and in a time when our world seems to be growing increasingly factionalized, robotics competitions allow young people to learn to collaborate in teams for a common goal, and to respect opponents. The international competitions create important venues for participants and viewers from all corners of the world to meet and truly get to know one another. That’s a good thing. I saw this dynamic happen among the Nigerian students I filmed for Naija Beta. They came from all over Nigeria, and a few from Ghana, gathered in Lagos for 5 weeks, learned to collaborate, learned that they had a powerful ability to create and to master engineering concepts. For some of them, coming to the bustling city of Lagos also was eye-opening. Of course, African countries stand a chance of winning. Talent can be found everywhere, and can sometimes make-up for limited resources.
TIA: You studied engineering at MIT, at what point did you realise you wanted to go into film?
AM: It was 2 years after I finished my masters at MIT. I was working with the video group at Texas Instruments in Dallas, back when television was going digital, and I got interested in the HD content acquisition tools which were becoming more affordable. I started playing around with a camcorder that had all these cool manual controls. But then I realized that fancy equipment could only really be valuable when serving a compelling story, which reminded me of all the writing and theatre I’d always loved to do, from my early days doing dance in primary school in Ukraine, to my days doing plays with the drama club at the Presbyterian Boys Secondary School in Ghana, to my favorite courses at MIT which were fiction and poetry workshops. And then I remembered that the very first thing I ever did at MIT was to make a documentary film with other students in the pre-orientation arts program. I can’t remember the film we made – the world was so new and exciting and confusing – but I guess filmmaking and storytelling have always been with me. I was just slow to realize that filmmaking and storytelling could be more than a hobby.
TIA: Your latest film One Day I Too Go Fly explores the stories of four African students in MIT. What appealed to you to make this story?
AM: After I realized I wanted to make films, I got the opportunity to study filmmaking in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. I was focused on making fiction films, but then one of my mentors, Tom Miller, said to me, “If you want to grow as a director, edit a documentary.” So I co-edited a classmate’s documentary short, and I fell in love with nonfiction cinema. I told all my friends that I was hunting for a documentary film idea to pursue. And then my host family from my MIT college days, Helen Samuels and Greg Anderson, and I had dinner, and they said, “We’ve watched you grow all these years, from the day we picked you up at the airport in Boston and drove you to MIT, and you took your first steps at MIT with such wonder and excitement. Why don’t you make a film about international students at MIT?” And that was the light bulb. My African friends and I were often reflecting on the paths our lives had taken as a result of our leaving our countries to study abroad, and this film idea felt like a way to explore those questions of who had we become, and how had we become that, and what had we gained and lost in the process, and what had our countries lost and gained in the process? It seemed timely and also fresh.
TIA: You left Ghana at age 19, do you think these stories are a way in which you identify yourself through?
AM: Absolutely. Even though I am not a central character, the films I have been creating are very personal. They are my way of trying to understand the world, my experience and life journey, the role of education in fostering or limiting freedom, and to wrestle with very personal questions of identity, home, purpose, obligation. From the personal, I hope to tap into the universal, and also get to explore more political topics such as modern day immigration dynamics that have real implications for African and American societies.
TIA: What did you enjoy most about filming One Day I Too Go Fly? What were your memorable experiences and what did you find intriguing about the lives of those you filmed?
AM: One of the things that each of the 4 students did on their trips home was to reconnect with their old high schools, and to share their experiences and wisdom with younger students. In Zimbabwe, Fidelis and I spent a weekend at his high school, Marist Brothers, which was tucked away in the mountains in Nyanga. We ate the not-so-stellar boarding school food, slept in the boarding school beds, attended morning assembly, and had so many great conversations with the students. I was blown away with the brilliance, creativity and curiosity of the young students. It reminded me of my own times in boarding school in Ghana, of the dreams and ambitions we had, and of the knowledge we devoured feverishly, and the competitive spirit that drove us to make each other better. There is so much talent in African youth, so much talent in young people all over the world. That was moving. And I felt like that was why I would finish this film, one way or another. For these amazing dreamers.
TIA: You travelled to four African countries. What was your experience filming in those countries and what did you enjoy most? What was greatest challenge?
AM: It was a special experience for me because I got to travel to 4 countries that I had never seen. I felt like there was a familiar Africanness in each country, and yet each one was distinct also. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, felt like it was being built up rapidly – so much construction everywhere. There was a palpable mix of African, Arab and Indian cultures – in the architecture, in the food, in the people. Kano, Nigeria, reminded me of my own northern Ghana, which I have not seen in two decades: the predawn call to prayer, the food, the sound of Hausa, the Sahara-tinged air, people getting back and forth on bicycles. Kigali, Rwanda, was green and hilly, and felt like no other place I had seen on the continent. Empty late night streets felt very safe, but then there was also the oddity of having soldiers with guns at random street corners keeping an eye on things during the day. The parts of Harare, Zimbabwe, I stayed in felt like the church capital of the world. A different Christian church at every corner, and the second question I was often asked after meeting people was whether I was a Christian, which I found odd. Whereas Christianity felt front-and-center in Harare, in Kigali it felt a bit more in the background. I wondered how much the political and recent historical contexts in the two countries contributed to that difference.
I got to stay with the families, who welcomed me into their homes like one of their own. My crew and I had access to weddings, and family meals, and after dinner family debates of existential questions, and moving tales of family histories, both painful and triumphant, and trips to places of jaw-dropping beauty. Victoria Falls, the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Kivu, Kurmi Market made my heart bubble over with pride from being African. I got to know Philip, Sante, Fidelis and Billy so much better and we developed closer bonds on those 2 week trips since we were basically together all the time, in a way that we were not when I was filming them at MIT. I could not have found a more giving foursome for this unique project. When I think of the generosity these four students and their families have shown me over the last 6 years of the project, I get overwhelmed.
The greatest challenge was staying focused and keeping the project alive on a very lean budget for 4 years, while trying to finish my other film Naija Beta and holding a full-time job at a software company. But no pain, no gain, right? I would not exchange the experience for anything.
TIA: You filmed for four years, in what situations did you find yourself within those years?
AM: For One Day I Too Go Fly, the idea was to film four students from arrival to graduation at MIT, and to travel home with each student to their country and meet their family. I wanted the film to be very subjective, from the perspective of the students who are arriving in a foreign country and learning the new land and growing in the process. So we don’t do any experts talking. It’s really just the students lives. The highs and the lows. I filmed everything from them brushing their teeth, to them having debates in classes, to being homesick, to being awestruck, to projects falling apart in their hands, to them taking part in protests. My producing partner, Brook Turner, also convinced me to have the students film themselves, video diary-style, and that also yielded some very intimate footage.
TIA: The topic of immigrants has been handled in literature by the likes of Chimamanda Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo and recently Imbolo Mbue. What’s the situation like in the film industry? Because there seems to be a lack of serious films that talk about these issues on the continent especially for a continent that always has news of desperate people crossing the Sahara Desert and going into Spain.
AM: I think literature by African writers is ahead of the curve in tackling the complexity of immigration between Africa and America. That is great. Film has much catching up to do. I certainly see Adichie’s work as inspiration. I find her work to be very personal and political at the same time, and I hope to achieve similar with my work. I am excited that MIT let me shoot this project over 4 years, and that it’s main characters are African youth. That is not the angle we have been groomed to expect for a film about an iconic American institution. And yet it makes sense, when you read stats about how African immigrants are the most highly educated immigrant group in the US. We are contributing significantly to American society and to other societies, and yet where are those stories in cinema? Still, I am personally not interested in stories of exceptionalism per se, and One Day I Too Go Fly will be more focused on the quiet humanity of four young people going through what some might consider an epic journey.
TIA: In this your latest documentary film, one of the characters, the Zimbabwean talks about democracy with another boy. You saw how these guys were when they left the continent for studies and how they adopted the American view of politics amongst other things. What came to your mind at that point, noticing the ideological and psychological changes in them.
AM: That was a fascinating scene to film because the high school student in Zimbabwe was holding his own in the debate about democracy with Fidelis, who at that time had completed two years at MIT. That is what I meant by the inspiring brilliance of young students on the continent. He could debate his senior, and make comparative arguments between his country’s systems and those in Europe and in the US. Also, this was a civil debate, and a spontaneous one. They weren’t calling each other names out of frustration, they debated ideas, with respect for each other’s differences for about 2 hours that night. For me that is promising. With respect to the four characters in my film, one of the wonderful things about the project, was to witness how their ideas evolve, then change, then change again over the years. We are all constantly growing, aren’t we? It is a journey, not a destination.
TIA: How do you compare all the African countries you visited, and what do you think of the future of the continent in that respect?
AM: As I mentioned earlier, there were differences in how religious some countries felt versus others. Some seemed to be booming with construction, while others seemed stuck in the past. Overall, it seemed to me that many African youths that are studying abroad are returning to the continent sooner than they did befeore. And that is probably a good thing for Africa.
TIA: What’s the next project you’re working on?
AM: I am fully focused on One Day I Too Go Fly for the next year or so, because there is that much work to raise the money we need to finish it, and to work with an editor to distill all the footage we shot in 5 countries over 4+ years into a 2 hour film. So I am not taking on any new projects yet, though I am on the hunt for a great story to tackle in fiction format after One Day I Too Go Fly is complete. I am itching to work with actors.
TIA: Thanks for your time. How can those interested in contributing to the launch of your film do that? And how can they watch it?
We are running a fundraiser on Kickstarter.com for One Day I Too Go Fly from July 10th to August 8th, to pay for the expensive post-production stage of the film. If you can, we would be grateful for your support that way:
We hope to complete the film in a year, share it at film festivals and then make it available worldwide. You can keep posted on the film’s journey via our social media:
Email Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/cwy2hT