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African-born Filmmaker Documents African Immigrants’ Lives

A successful wireless network manager-turned-documentary filmmaker records the experiences of African immigrants like himself as they live their lives in an unfamiliar culture. His work has just earned him a $50,000 Pew Fellowship, the largest private grant of its kind in America, established to support promising artists in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area. We speak with Filmon Mebrahtu about his documentaries, and the reasons behind his career change, in this edition of New American Voices.

In documenting on film the lives of African immigrants in the city in which he now lives, Filmon Mebrahtu says he seeks not only to tell their story, but also to better understand his own. He left Eritrea, in northeast Africa, with his family when he was six years old, lived in Cameroon for three years, went to boarding school in India for three years, attended high school in the United Arab Emirates, and came to the United States for college at age 16. Here he's lived in South Dakota and Texas, and in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta before settling in Philadelphia, on America's east coast.

“So I think my life has always been kind of in a state of motion, and I've always been interested, in a way, to understand that experience for myself,” says Filmon Mebrahtu. “What I'm interested in when I'm talking to people is the separation from extended family, being far away from home, and also being in a drastically different culture from the one you were raised in. How does that impact the person as the years go by in the new land you've decided to call home? How does that change you as a person, how you see the world, and where you see yourself fitting in, in the scheme of things?”

Mr. Mebrahtu says he finds the subjects for his documentaries in Philadelphia's African community, usually through word of mouth. He tries to get to know the people at least a little before starting to film, “But I also feel that everybody has a story to tell, you know,” he says. “So I think it's really kind of on me - if I'm not able to get a story out of the person, then it's not really that person, but it's probably me. So in a way it's also a challenge, because a lot of times I follow people for a day or I spend a day with them, I go in with my camera trusting as I go in that I will come out with a story. But at the end of the day it's kind of an unknown when I go in, am I going to get something out of it. I just have to trust and believe that as long as I let the conversation flow, and I can relate to the person in a personal way, then there's some universal truth that are bound to come out in that relationship.”

Mr. Mebrahtu's film Rencontrer (To Meet) consists of six segments, each focusing on a different individual. With only the natural background sound and no musical embellishments, we see them - usually dressed in their traditional African garb - getting on a city bus, tending a garden, visiting friends in a hair-braiding salon, kneeling on a mat in their dining room to pray. As they go about the business of their daily lives, they talk about everyday things - their children, their frustrations with local bureaucracy, their attempts to recreate a bit of their African homeland on American soil - even if it's only a garden growing peppers and collard greens.

“For me, the goal when I'm doing these documentaries is to have an emotional connection between the audience and the subjects,” says Filmon Mebrahtu. “I think what happens is a lot of times when we go through statistics, whether it's African immigrants or other immigrants, how many are there, education, how are they successful here - when we go through all the statistics I think the people get lost in the numbers. And for me, it's just a chance to meet a person, a story, and through those stories you see the issues around their lives, issues that new immigrants face.”

Filmon Mebrahtu says his own immigrant experience was comparatively painless. He arrived in the United States on a student visa to go to college in South Dakota, where his sister already lived. After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering, he transferred to Texas A and M University for graduate study in the same field. With a Master's degree, he was offered a job--along with a work permit -- by the giant telecommunications firm, General Telephone and Electronics, or GTE. “Like all immigrants, I realized I was going to stay here for a while and I needed to find a way to stay,” he says. “And so my strategy was - I was fortunate enough to be good at math and science, so I kind of took that route. Once I got my green card through working with GTE, then I got a national interest waiver to become a citizen, because of the work that I'd done at GTE.”

In his successful career with GTE, Filmon Mebrahtu spent ten years managing the company's wireless Internet network. But he says he eventually found that the work, though exciting and interesting, wasn't really fulfilling. He says he wanted to make a contribution, to do something that was closer to who he was, to his experience as an African in America. “You know what, I think there comes a time in everybody's life where you just draw the line, where you say, 'You know, this is what's important to me and this is what I'm about,'” he explains. “And I knew that it was going to be really tough financially, but for me, what was more important was that I wake up each morning and do what I really wanted to do. And to me, if I wasn't doing that, then I felt it was a life that I wasn't meant to live, you know?”

Filmon Mebrahtu has dedicated the last 5 years to recording the lives of African immigrants, and has received many awards for his work. Now with the funds provided by the Pew Fellowship Mr. Mebrahtu hopes to focus on his newest project: following two Senegalese immigrant families, one in Paris and one in Philadelphia, over a period of ten months, to capture the cultural, inter-generational, and transcendently human issues of their lives