Director Arthur Musah explains the hardships and beauty behind his feature film “Brief Tender Light.”
Ten years in the making, filmmaker Arthur Musah debuted his documentary film, “Brief Tender Light,” about four African-born students who receive a full-time scholarship into Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His film won the Best Documentary Feature Film award at the Tacoma Film Festival October 8. This film captures intimate moments in these students’ lives, from celebrating an end of school party by themselves to deciding whether America has better opportunities for them.
“The point I was trying to make with the film is that we all really belong in the world,” said Musah of his documentary. “I hope that this film can celebrate our journeys and our experiences. I personally had not seen this topic being explored in television and film so I wanted to do it myself. Maybe you see African or international students on your campus but you feel that you don’t connect with them. However, this film can be a glimpse into the lives of these students and their families, personal lives and aspirations. In many ways they are not different than your own.”
The students featured in the film are Sante Nyambois from Tanzania, Billy Ndengeyingoma from Rwanda, Fidelis Chimombe from Zimbabwe and Philip Abel Adama from Nigeria.
Over their four years at the university, they are pushed to endure the hardships of being an MIT student while being separated from their loved ones. From attending Black Lives Matter protests to re-shifting their perspective of LGBTQ+ rights, the students begin discerning the gap between America and Africa. Can they survive the trials and tribulations of being a student at the world’s top engineering school? Will they decide to quit and go back home? What is their youthful idealism?
In an exclusive interview with the Ledger, Musah shares his thoughts on the film’s meaning, childhood in Ghana and interconnectedness between all students, including international students.
Q: Hi, Arthur. Thank you so much for doing this interview. The film is fantastic! You did a great job with the storytelling of these students and their own personal struggles. I know that this is your first feature film. What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
A: “That’s a great start! I think I’ve always been into storytelling since I was little. My mom is Ukranian Russian and my dad is Ghanian. I was in Ukraine till I was three years old and then went to live in Ghana and then back to Ukraine when I was around eight or nine. I remember some of the films that I watched at that time. We would only get one film a week in Ghana and they were always documentary-style films. I would always stay up and look forward to that one film I saw as a kid. I had always been fascinated by that form of storytelling.
“Also, in high school I loved writing. My teacher Mrs. Charlotte S. Akyeampong in Ghana really nurtured that bug that was bubbling inside of me. She really created a safe space for me to be myself and explore this other side of me. She was also the theatre club teacher and helped us put on plays that she wrote. When I look back to my time in high school in Ghana, it was really defined by my drama club experience and the friends that I made there. It was a place where I could be queer and be a storyteller or performance kid.
“Later at MIT, I discovered creative writing classes and found it was a space where I could let my hair down. I could be so stressed with school but when I walk into a fiction or poetry workshop, I walk into a fun place of storytellers having this incredible discussion. I’ve been so lucky to have mentors and collaborators nurture this part of me.”
Q: I know that you went to MIT yourself and are originally from Ghana. Did you ever have déjà vu during this experience and feel the need to give them helpful hints or tips? Or did you not want to interject and let them learn for themselves?
A: “Yeah, I started off in the latter mode thinking I just wanted to be a fly on the wall. I don’t want to interfere in their lives. I really didn’t want to influence
in their lives in any way and just have a camera in the background following them. But I didn’t know from the start that I would grow as a filmmaker and begin to understand this embrace of the film as I thought about it more deeply. I realized that in a way, there is no way to not influence their lives just by virtue of the fact that I am bringing a camera and having them answering these questions, questions that come from an older version of myself thinking back to those moments when I was their age. So instead of pretending to be a fly on the wall I decided to embrace the fact that this was a film project.”
Q: We have a lot of international students attending University of Washington who could probably relate on some level to the students in this film. What would you like students at UW to take away from this film when they see it?
A: “The film is about how we really all belong everywhere in the world. We are all so unique and different in our own individual ways. I wanted people to leave this film feeling like this was a celebration of these aspects and to keep exploring them. On some level, international students go through a certain level of struggle others won’t understand. Student
’s like Sante and Philip have such different backgrounds but both have a commonality of being African. I personally had not seen this topic being explored in television and film so I wanted to do it myself. Maybe you see African or international students on your campus but you feel that you don’t connect with them. However, this film can be a glimpse into the lives of these students and their families, personal lives and aspirations. In many ways they are not different than your own.”
Viewers can watch “Brief Tender Light” on January 15, 2024, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on the Public Broadcasting Service television network (PBS) through their POV series.