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A documentary lifts a veil on a generation of abuse
When Seattle activist Eliaichi Kimaro first approached Vashon film editor Eric Frith about the documentary she hoped to make, she had in mind a fairly straightforward biographical story — one that explored Tanzania, her father’s tribal culture and the role of the World Bank in Africa.
But what unfolded over the course of years of work, much of it in Frith’s small studio behind his house on the west side of Vashon, was an intensely emotional exploration not only into Kimaro’s cultural heritage but also her past, her family’s past and a set of family secrets that had been tightly held for decades.
Along the way, Kimaro — supported by Frith and Vashon musician Pete Droge — dug deeper into her extended family’s history as well as her own remarkable but painful childhood, a childhood marked by a brief, untold period of sexual abuse.
What emerged is “A Lot Like You,” a tender narrative that tells a story not only of genital mutilation and rape but also the complexities of familial relationships set against the backdrop of an ancient tribal culture.
How can a documentary about rape and mutilation be tender? In part, because this story is seen through the lens of Kimaro, a woman who spent years helping victims of abuse, and told largely by her family — her vibrant African father, her keenly observant Korean mother and a pair of Tanzanian aunts who possess a quiet dignity. But it’s also tender because Kimaro focuses on both the wide sweep of her family’s history as well as the intimate relationships that bind them.
It’s not a documentary about domestic violence. It’s a look at people’s lives — the hard parts and the beautiful ones.
In an interview in Frith’s studio, Kimaro, Frith and Droge talked at length about how this documentary went from a straight-ahead look at her father and his Chagga culture to an intimate portrayal of family life. It was a process unlike any other, all three said — with each of them playing a role that enabled Kimaro to ultimately decide she had it in her to create a documentary that required considerable vulnerability and strength on her part.
“I realized I couldn’t let my aunts’ stories go,” Kimaro said, referring to her two aunts’ shocking story — never told before — of rape by the men they married. “But it wasn’t at all what I set out to do. And I had to ask myself, ‘Did I have the fortitude to make a documentary about abuse? Is this how I want to be seen in the world?’”
Frith, meanwhile, had to wear two hats, he said — one as a writer and editor, who knows powerful footage when he sees it, and the other as an increasingly dear friend to Kimaro, a position he didn’t want to abuse. “This had to come from her,” he said.
Droge, too, played a pivotal role, entering the process as the film’s composer far earlier than most musicians normally would. His evocative acoustic scores, some of it music he’d already written, added an intimate feel to her footage — an intimacy that emboldened Kimaro to take the film to a deeper level.
“Eric is so much more than an editor. And Pete is so much more than a composer,” Kimaro said. “They just took it on … This film would not exist in this current form if it weren’t for them.”
Indeed, all three — Kimaro, Frith and Droge — share the title of producer.
Since its release in May 2011, “A Lot Like You” has garnered considerable attention. It was selected as one of the top 10 audience choice awards at the Seattle International Film Festival and won best documentary feature at the Montreal International Black Film Festival. The film has also gotten considerable press, as has Kimaro, a mixed-race, first-generation American who lives in Seattle with her husband and young daughter.
Kimaro, who for 12 years worked as a trauma counselor for survivors of rape and abuse, decided to quit her job in 2004 and travel to the Tanzanian coffee farm on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro where her father had been raised before he left for college in the United States at the age of 18. She knew the place well; she visited it every other summer. She returned as an adult, however, toting a camera and determined to do a movie that explored, in part, her father’s separation from his tribal culture.
She got to know Frith when she returned to United States with 80 hours of footage and — not sure how to transform her footage into a compelling documentary — signed up for a film editing class he was teaching at 911 Media Arts. Frith, an accomplished editor and producer, was taken by her footage, by what he called Kimaro’s “unique lens.”
The partnership that ensued resulted in a project that now has a number of Vashon connections. Jeff Hoyt, known by many Islanders as lead writer for the Church of Great Rain, acted as a voice coach for Kimaro. Droge’s wife, Elaine Summers, was the executive music producer and another set of eyes throughout the making of the documentary. Terri Bassett, a designer, animator and videographer, handled the film’s graphic designs and animation, and Marc Brown was the film’s colorist. Other Islanders played a role, including James Culbertson, Noah Dolan, Richard McFarland and Melissa Curtin.
Kimaro, Frith and Droge said they’re pleased with the results of their hard work — not only because they think they’ve made a fine documentary but because of the impact it’s already beginning to have. The film is being shown all over, including a recent showing to members of the Chagga community who live in Philadelphia. Educators are asking for a version that could work in a school setting. Kimaro was recently the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“Eli’s courage and vulnerability are already helping a lot of people,” said Frith. “The conversations we’ve heard after the film are what we were hoping for. We’re seeing it happening.”
Kimaro, for her part, said the experience of showing the film to audiences across the country has been surreal. People don’t come up to her afterwards and say, “That was an awesome film,” she said. They hug her for 20 seconds or more, sometimes in tears.
“There’s the feeling of being seen. Really, really seen. And for me, there’s something very liberating about that,” she said. “There’s a veil that’s lifted. And it opens the door to a deeper and more meaningful conversation.”
“A Lot Like Me” will play at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Vashon Theatre as a fundraiser for the DoVE Project, Vashon’s anti-domestic violence program. Tickets are $10. A reception, with wine and appetizers, will begin at 6:45 at Movie Magic; tickets for the reception are $20 and are available at Vashon Youth & Family Services. Sponsorships, at $100 and $250, are also available. Call Allison Shirk at 734-6521 for sponsorship information.