This is the full interview of Arthur Musah from today’s issue.
The Tech: How did your personal experience influence you to make this documentary?
Arthur Musah: I’m at the point in my life where I’m thinking about how did I become this person or how did this piece of me come about. It seemed like going back to MIT and looking at how young Africans today are going through that journey might be a good way to explore some of those questions that I’ve been asking myself and then maybe make them a little more universal because there are other friends of mine who were also trying to figure out their place in the world and how did they get where they are, where do you go from here—so it’s all part of that investigation.
TT: Can you talk a little about the nature of leaving your home to come to America? What is the main goal in coming to America?
AM: Different people leave for different reasons but I think a lot of people who come to American universities from Ghana at least are hunting for the best education possible. They are people who are curious about the world. They want to know knowledge. I loved science; I loved learning about the world and my friends did as well, and we were very competitive about doing it. And it seemed once we heard about American universities being these beacons, being the best in the world, and we heard that there were ways to fund us even though we couldn’t afford a forty thousand a year tuition bill—I mean at that point, I don’t think my parents were making that much in a year – it became this goal that we were working towards.
I think it’s just this desire to be present, to know what’s going on, to be state of the art, and to participate in whatever is happening on a global scale. It’s part of the reason that, back in Ghana, we consume music videos from the U.S., Europe, Asia. It’s the same reason why we’re curious about foreign languages. A lot of people want to explore the world. And a lot of the people that come to seek higher education out here also see issues that can have an impact on in their communities. They see ways in which they can make their lives better, their families’ lives better, and then their communities as well. Part of this hunt for the best and latest knowledge out in the world is to not only plug yourself to this global community and where the world is going today but bring everybody including your country with you as well.
TT: What do you think the students want to eventually achieve by coming to MIT? Do you think they will have to find the balance between wanting success and wanting to help their families and countries? Do you think these students will struggle to balance trying to make money and trying to help people?
AM: Part of the journey here is to figure out how to reconcile those two desires. I think it makes sense that they want to be successful: you want to secure your future, your children’s future, your parent’s future you want to make life easier for them. You want to make them proud. But they’re also very conscious of the positions that they’re in that they can use to impact their communities or impact the world in general. And I don’t think they’re there yet - because they’re at MIT and doing classes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - but once you graduate and you start working, you do deal a little with “how much do I live for myself?” and “how much do I live for my community?” That’s part of the reason I’m making this film. It’s part of investigating, “How did I become this person?” or “How are these students becoming these people?“
I’ve seen a lot more examples now about how you can pursue your personal goals for success, financial and professional success, but also more quickly connect to the African continent or your home country or play in the more global scenario. They’re dealing with these questions. They will deal with them more as they head towards graduation. But I also think the landscape has changed and they’re seeing a lot more examples of people going back home to be entrepreneurs rather than working for somebody, or working for themselves.
TT: How did you pick these five students and how did they respond to the concept of chronicling their years here? How did you approach them with this idea?
AM: It would be interesting to get their perspectives on the process of filming, but I try to keep in touch with them about how much is this impacting their lives. But the way I went about getting or meeting them was through the admissions office. Basically what the admissions office offered was to disseminate an introductory letter from me to the members of the incoming class, which is the class of 2015, who were coming from Africa who had said yes to MIT’s admission offer. And so eight students contacted me from Nigeria, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Rwanda. We started communicating by phone and email and I felt like it was important to capture the first moment they got to MIT. Beyond that, I think you build a relationship with your characters and some people really believed in the project or are very good at communicating what’s going on with their lives.
It’s just kind of them getting a sense of what is the story I want to tell, because you could take the same footage and take all these stories and make whatever you want out of it. There’s a lot of power in editing. It’s a matter of communicating what is the story I’m trying to tell and is this something they want to be a part of.
TT: I can’t help but think that since you approached the admissions office that this is a sort of marketing ploy. Is that how you think of it?
AM: Once the project got approved, MIT has been very clear that it needs to be an independent project. Obviously there’s oversight in terms of I have to get permission for every single scenario that I’m filming. But it’s been a very hands off thing in terms of you control what the film is, nobody’s reviewing any cuts, MIT isn’t funding it, I’m funding it myself (doing Kickstarter, crowd funding, all that stuff) so it’s very independent. I have full control over the story that I’m going to tell and it’s one of the conversations we had that they were not interested in using this as an advertisement piece. They understood that it was going to be a serious documentary, that it’s going to take a serious look at whatever the story unfolds.
TT: This is definitely a coming-of-age story. Are you aiming for relatability? Because being an MIT student is a very small population and then being an international student from Africa is an even smaller population. So are you aiming more for shedding on light on their situation or for making this a story that people can relate to?
AM: My approach in this whole thing is really to stick to the intimate stories of these students, which means telling the experience from their perspective, from their point of view. There are so many other ways it could have been done. You can get experts to comment on anything about MIT or technology or engineers or how engineers are made – but I think that’s different. That’s not the kind of film I want tell. The kind of film I want to tell is: these are human beings. They happen to be from Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and there are some specifics about their lives and their backgrounds that will be unique to them but that’s true with anybody.
They all hurt, they all celebrate, there are things that make them happy, there are things they fear, and there are things they hope for. Those are the things that we connect to when a movie is successful or a book is successful. We want something very specific and maybe something exotic, but there is something fundamentally universal about being human that I think will come through. It was also important for it to be MIT because we are in a digital age; somehow MIT represented something that was more current and global. Even though it’s very specific, in some ways it was very universal and maybe also very intriguing. For all those reasons I thought it would be interesting to come back to MIT, but the plan really is to stick very closely with the students and their journeys.
TT: Anything else?
AM: We’re trying to get information out there. It’s a four-year project and we’re probably three years away from having the thing completed and actually screen anywhere or be available for viewing. But part of what I hope is that people will hear about it, respond to it sooner, and get in touch with us and make it a two-way conversation. I would really love some feedback from people who are going through MIT, even if they’re not these five students right now, and also people who have left MIT – everybody has memories of how that shaped their lives. I would love to hear their stories because I think they would definitely influence the film and help make it stronger.