Lewiston High School senior Zamzam Elmoge was among 20 people selected to participate in the AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab in California. Shayan Asgharnia/Big Branch Productions

LEWISTON – Seventeen-year-old Zamzam Elmoge, a senior at Lewiston High School, is hoping that one day her name will be listed among the 3,000 or so people who have won an Academy Award.

With two short films under her belt and a full-length documentary film in production, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine it happening.

Elmoge, with the assistance of several other Lewiston High School students, is part of a nonprofit group called the GenZ Project, a high school club managed by students that attempts to make films or hold discussions and dialogues about the Lewiston community and its youth.

In June, Elmoge was one of 20 young women across the United States to be accepted into the AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab in Los Angeles, California, where she learned about the work that goes into making a documentary short from women in the entertainment industry, including Reese Witherspoon, who runs the lab.

It was another small step for Elmoge toward accomplishing her dream of being a filmmaker.

“My friends are always telling me, ‘Zam, you’re going to get us all out of here,’ or, ‘Zam, you’re going to put us on the map,’” Elmoge said with a smile. “I really feel like the universe is planning something for me.”

“Reason 4369”

Elmoge was born in Kenya and moved to the United States with her family in 2006, eventually coming to Lewiston in 2008.

She said when she started eighth grade, she began joining leadership clubs and looked for ways to “become more engaged in my community.”

“When I was a freshman in high school, I learned about the Seeds of Peace camp, which is a leadership organization,” Elmoge said. “I went to the camp during the summer of my freshman year, and it opened up my mind to the universe, human interactions and what youth can do to change the world.”

Following her first three-week stint at Seeds of Peace in Otisfield, Elmoge said she wanted to find a way to express her leadership and activism through “what I love to do the most: filmmaking.”

From there, the GenZ Project was born.

“Reason 4369” was the GenZ Project’s first film as a group, and it brought a new level of attention to Elmoge and the other students who managed the club.

She said the film focused on the youth of Lewiston, how they are perceived by others, and how they break the stereotypes they hear about themselves.

“People have these misconceptions about Lewiston and how the kids here are bad,” Elmoge said. “That’s what the film revolves around: stereotypes about Lewiston children.”

For the film, Elmoge and her crew interviewed students about their lives and what it was like growing up in Lewiston.

“We’d get students coming in, sharing their stories, and it really opened up your mind about who you talk to every day,” Elmoge said. “We thought we knew them, but you’d hear their stories, and it changes your perspective.”

Filming a documentary film while attending high school, doing homework, and participating in school activities was overwhelming at times for Elmoge, but on June 26, 2018, the GenZ Project’s work paid off in the form of a film debut at Lewiston Middle School.

Following the debut of “Reason 4369,” Elmoge said the GenZ Project started receiving requests to show the film in Maine communities, including Norway and Portland.

She said she was encouraged by the reaction from the film and how people showed an interest in learning more about the youth in Lewiston.

“I think the movie helped people be open-minded a little more, and it allowed kids in Lewiston to understand their community better,” Elmoge said. “I feel like a lot of kids are just brainwashed into thinking that their own community is really bad.”

The film premiered around the same time that Donald Giusti, 38, of Lewiston died following a brawl between two groups near Kennedy Park.

“After that fight, there was a lot of judgment about Somalian kids, that they’re bad and want to fight people,” Elmoge said. “I think that the film helped to change some perceptions. It showed that there’s a lot of kids out there that need to be heard and listened to.”

Hello Sunshine

Elmoge learned about the AT&T Hello Sunshine Filmmaker Lab from one of her friends at Tree Street Youth Center.

The lab teaches the next generation of young women filmmakers how the industry works and how to improve diversity and representation in Hollywood.

With 20 spots open for the lab, Elmoge’s friend urged her to apply.

At first, Elmoge said she thought she wouldn’t have a shot at getting in and didn’t apply. However, with two days until applications were due, she submitted one talking about the GenZ project and her inspirations in the film industry. A few weeks later, she found out she was accepted.

For the first time since she came to the United States, Elmoge got on a plane to Los Angeles for the three-week lab.

“I learned a lot about the business side of filmmaking,” Elmoge said. “I’ve always known how the equipment works, but I had no idea how in the industry worked.”

She said she spoke with a Hello Sunshine employee about “the different routes you can take as a woman of color in the film industry.”

“She told me it can be a little harder for a person of color to make it in Hollywood, so she gave me some tips,” Elmoge said.

Above all else, Elmoge said the lab gave her a chance to socialize with like-minded girls her age who had a similar interest in filmmaking.

“My friends in Maine might get bored talking about movies after a little while, but here, we could talk about it for hours,” Elmoge said.

Her stint at the lab ended with her and the 19 other students making a documentary short about their experience and interviewing prominent women in Hollywood, including Witherspoon.

God-given mission

After filming “Reason 4369” and returning from the lab, Elmoge said her plan was to take a brief hiatus from making films to focus on school and work.

However, in August 2018, a month before her junior year was going to start, Elmoge’s friend, 16-year old Laila Al-Matrouk, was killed after being hit by a car while riding her bike in Belfast.

“I met her at the Seeds of Peace,” Elmoge said. “She was an activist, a changemaker, and after she passed away, I started to think a lot about how kids on this Earth pass away before finding their purpose or fulfilling their mission.”

She said she believes “each person has a “God-given mission,” with some people figuring out what their mission in life is early and others not discovering it until later.

“Laila did a lot in her 16 years, and she knew what her mission was,” Elmoge said. “She just wasn’t able to fulfill it.”

It was here that Elmoge came up with the idea for a feature-length documentary film called “Barayubaka,” which translates to “youth of the stars.”

Elmoge said “Barayubaka” will focus on “changemakers still physically living on Earth who are fulfilling missions for those who passed away.”

“It’s about the people carrying on the legacies of others,” she said.

After “Barayubaka” is finished, Elmoge said she’ll go to college for media and film production.

She also wants to see new students carry on the legacy of the GenZ Project after she graduates.

“I want to see students continue making films and continuing to have an impact on the community,” she  said.


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