One Day I Too Go Fly is a feature-length film documenting the experiences of four African students during their four years of studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Shot in America, Africa and throughout the world, this coming of age documentary follows the lives of each of the students and the way in which they discover themselves and the world around them. Currently in the post-production phase, a Kickstarter campaign is underway to raise the necessary funds to cut through hundreds of hours of footage. Ayiba’s Sanet Oberholzer spoke to director Arthur Musah about the project.
How was the idea of One Day I Too Go Fly borne?
I was finishing year two of the MFA program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and had just fallen in love with documentary film through the experience of being an editor on a friend’s film. My host family from my MIT student days gave me the idea to make a film about international students: “We remember picking you up from the airport and dropping you off at MIT, and what a journey you have had since that first step at MIT!” I decided to focus it on Africans and the initial proposal I wrote up had the film unfolding over one year, with students at different stages of the undergraduate experience. But as I developed the idea, it became clear that it would be more compelling to go through the four-year experience with the same characters, to be able to watch them physically change onscreen, and to be able to chart the transformations of their thinking about life, themselves, politics, and about the world. That’s how One Day I Too Go Fly, intended to be a cheap and doable first film, became this crazy and wonderful adventure spanning multiple years and continents.
Where did you meet the four students you feature on the documentary and what was their initial reaction to the concept?
The MIT Admissions office shared a letter I wrote introducing myself and my proposed film project with the admitted students arriving from Africa in the first half of 2011. Those that were interested in the project emailed me, and from there we communicated over email and phone. I tried to make it clear it would be for the full four years of their college experience but they seemed unfazed about that. I thought they were brave and I was very impressed by their boldness. I learned a bit about their backgrounds and met almost all of them at the airport when they first landed in Boston. It was important to be there from the very beginning of their journey and to film that, even if it had to be done guerrilla filmmaker style with a cheap camera.
How have you gathered your footage and how much time has been donated to doing this over the past four years?
We have filmed hundreds of hours of footage: interviews, classroom scenes, lab scenes, cultural shows, school ceremonies, trips home to their countries. The students also kept video diaries and that yielded some magical footage. I call the film our intimate epic because we filmed for more than four years all over the world: in Boston and Los Angeles in the US; in Lagos and Kano in Nigeria; in Harare, Nyanga and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; in Dar Es Salaam, Moshi, Ngorongoro and Zanzibar in Tanzania; and in Kigali in Rwanda. We even filmed briefly in Istanbul, Turkey, and the students did video diaries in France, Hong Kong, and India.
How did being able to travel to each of the students’ home countries enrich the project as a whole?
It was essential. We did two weeks each with Philip, Fidelis, Sante, and Billy in their home countries. Those trips were vital because they revealed important parts of who the students were: their families, their origins, their histories. As the film’s director, the trips helped me understand better what drove their ambitions and life missions. I often stayed with their family, or my team was embedded close and we spent every day of the trip with the family, so we got to know each other well in a way that I feel was important for an intimate film about people.
What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
Staying focused and pushing the film for six years has been the toughest part of the project, especially when you have a day job and have to play so many film production roles on a very lean budget. What has carried me is an amazing community that has rallied behind the film. The students themselves have given so much of their lives and themselves to the project. I feel I owe them and their families nothing short of an amazing and honest film.
What has been your motivation, and continues to be your motivation, in ensuring this documentary reaches completion?
I’m motivated by the beautiful story we have filmed. It’s in rough form right now, but I know it’s in the footage, waiting to be carved out through months of editing. I’m motivated by the prospect of bringing a fresh depiction of African lives to TVs and cinemas: that of African youths’ lives at the world’s number one college. I would love to show the film to my nephew Ivan and my niece Ariella and my godsons Kalani and Jari, but it doesn’t exist, so I’m making it. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said ““If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’m following that sagely advice.
How can the public assist in raising the final funds to complete your project post-production?
Contribute now on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arthurmusah/one-day-i-too-go-fly-documentary-post-production. We must raise $60,000 before August 9th or else the post-production fundraising campaign will have failed and none of the pledges raised will be collected. You stand to receive rewards, including copies of the film (when One Day I Too Go Fly is done), the spinoff Naija Beta (as soon as the campaign succeeds), and autographed books by famous writers who support the project such as Junot Diaz, Helen Elaine Lee and Erica Funkhouser.
What is the ultimate message, or sentiment, you wish to leave with your viewers?
I’m a fan of complicated endings so this is a tough question to answer. I think the resilience of the four stars of One Day I Too Go Fly will be powerful and hard to miss. That resilience will inspire. But I am more interested in raising questions within the viewer, reminding them of things they have forgotten from their youthful ambitions, of the strengths they carry within themselves. I’m excited about working with an editor to mine that magic that cinema and art have, and to distil it from the footage we have collected over the years.
What do you think is the key to launching a successful fundraising campaign and how have you managed thus far with your film projects?
I think it’s important to build a community, to share your project early with friends, to put in the work to go as far as you can on your own, and then to put it out there. You have to work hard to promote the campaign ahead of the launch and all through the campaign, and certainly after. Do it with a team, treat people with honor and respect. Be generous to others. Inspire people, but also listen and learn from people. Adapt, but don’t give up.