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Taking cues from our kids: Lessons learned from “Maine Girls”

HUFFINGTON POST, 11 / 26 / 2017


The girls of “Maine Girls,” a new documentary co-directed by Yael Luttwak and Abigail Tannebaum Sharon.


“I think post-election, I wish that everyone across the whole country could have the opportunity to be in a group like this where you get to meet people from all over the world. People who’ve live in the U.S. their whole lives can meet people who’ve immigrated here for various reasons and understand why they came here, so that there isn’t so much hate.” – Emma, “Maine Girls”

Perhaps the most obvious charm in children is their innocence. Old as time, reliable as the tide, infants land in this world lacking intentional negativity. Almost universally, hatred is something that is learned.

Eventually, those malleable slates fill up with impressions, ideas and opinions. Sometimes conclusions are drawn that can last a lifetime. But kids also pass through an intellectual way station in their teenage years. Like walking wheels of fortune, young minds explore, spin, absorb, spin some more, until a true north begins to take shape. These spin cycles can teach adults a ton – if we tune in and pay attention.

I was reminded of this recently as I watched a new documentary called “Maine Girls.” Produced and directed by Yael Luttwak and Abigail Tannebaum Sharon, the film brought together immigrant and U.S. born teen girls living in the state of Maine. Kids who originally hail from as far away as Vietnam, Jamaica, Somalia and the Congo, and as close as the suburbs surrounding South Portland High School. A rainbow residing in what is still one of the whitest states in the nation.

All of these young women realized that they were getting together to learn about their fellow classmates who, on the surface, seemed quite different – and they knew that cameras would be capturing it all. The setting is familiar territory for Luttwak, whose 2007 breakout film, “A Slim Peace,” brought together Israelis, Palestinians and Bedouin Arabs in the West Bank for a similar purpose: opening minds.

From that first film, Luttwak adapted the Slim Peace curriculum to work in a variety of interpersonal settings. It’s a program that uses cooking, healthy eating, listening – even hip hop dance in the case of the Maine Girls. The goals of Slim Peace are to knock down walls and empower people to find through lines that mesh their common humanity. And while the two films have similar themes, the biggest difference I observed in “Maine Girls” was the age at which these subjects were learning about their differences. As teenagers, the girls seemed to immediately identify that which was foreign to them, respecting each other’s differences, but at the very same time realizing those same differences don’t really matter much.

Fifteen-year-old Zulayqua, who is originally from Somalia put it out there: “I’ve been called names, due to my head scarf, my religion.”

After the Paris terrorist attack, which occurred during the filming of “Maine Girls,” Zulayqua took it further:

“It was an ISIS group. And people think that ISIS are Muslims. But, if you’re killing people, you’re automatically not a Muslim… One thing I think people should know about us, we’re like, not horrible people. In other parts of the world there are people who do harm on others, but, it’s not like everyone. I don’t want to say the word because I think people are gonna be offended. Can I say the word? (hesitation)… We’re not all terrorists. And, what happened in the past week, people automatically believe that – if you’re Muslim, you’re automatically a terrorist. But it’s not true. I feel really strongly about that.”

Zulayqua explained how scary it is to talk about this stuff – but what a relief it was to have her classmates listen without judgment. Zulayqua desperately wanted everyone to know that Islam “is a religion based off peace.” The others in her group had zero difficulty understanding this. To the extent they had any preconceived notions, they were far from firmly affixed. Every mind in the room seemed fertile to consider new perspectives.

Grace, an admittedly shy, 15-year-old who was adopted from China and grew up in Maine, described the impact Zulayqua had on the entire group:

“Because Maine is so white, we don’t really get a chance to experience other cultures and religions. So I think it was definitely eye opening for them, especially when Zulayqua talked about her religion. Because you don’t often get to talk to a Muslim, one-on-one, and get to know them and their religion. So you only get what the media feeds you.”

Ah, the media. Run mostly by adults. Delivering content to stratified audiences. Even well-intentioned members of the media (I count myself as one), often offer mere snapshots of perceived realities. Context can be harder to come by. And although young people don’t generally engage in daily media analysis or the conscious weighing of the various sources who serve up the “news,” teens can easily spot a deeper truth when it is presented. That’s what I took from Grace.

Many of the Maine Girls described themselves as a bit bashful when the semester began, and this was obvious early on in the film; tentative glances during conversations, self-conscious expressions on the makeshift dance floor. But the more they listened to each other, the more they wanted to talk to one another. And ultimately, the less isolated they felt.

It didn’t all come all at once. Relationships don’t work that way. But it did come. Fourteen-year-old Abbie summed it up for the whole group:

“We said we were gonna try to build trust, but that’s a really hard thing to do. And I think we’ve accomplished that. I don’t know if it’s just all the icebreakers we’ve done or the talking, but I feel like everyone just trusts each other a lot more.”

These teens talked about their families, cultures, religions, stereotypes and the challenges of “being a girl.” Quoting their words here doesn’t do justice to the depth of their observations. Seeing and hearing them in the film delivers a far richer insight into all of their insights.

Two years after the principal shooting for “Maine Girls,” Luttwak and Sharon brought the girls back together for a session. This was following the 2016 election. The girls were so happy to see each other; not all of them were still attending South Portland High. But they also talked about the confusion and division they were hearing and feeling in 2017. Isolation. Ugliness. Threats.

It was this final discussion in the film that led to 17-year-old Emma’s comment, cited above, about wanting everyone to have the experience that they’d had. The Maine Girls listened to each other, and in the process, “opened each other up.” Grace put an exclamation mark on it:

“Slim Peace has had a lasting impact on me. I feel like I understand people a lot better and I know how to reach out and connect with them. Sometimes, I felt I wasn’t able to talk to them, because I was either shy or didn’t understand. But now I know that sometimes you just have to reach out and take a step forward, and you’ll understand people better.”