Opponents of immigration rely on labels to make us forget that we’re talking about people. Maine, despite being the “whitest” state in the nation, has a thriving immigrant community, which makes sense. The occasional blizzard aside, it’s a wonderful place to live and people “from away” (here either for the summer or for a lifetime) only enrich our state. Still, the election of President Trump, whose “travel ban” has been seen as a xenophobic anti-immigrant measure, shows that America has a lot of unresolved issues regarding its newest arrivals.
For Yael Luttwak and Abigail Tannebaum Sharon, co-directors of the new documentary, “Maine Girls,” Trump’s ascendancy came at a pivotal time. Since 2015, the Washington, D.C.-based movie makers have been following a group of female students – some new immigrants, some not – in South Portland as they participate in an eight-week program with the nonprofit organization Slim Peace (slimpeace.wordpress.com). I spoke to the filmmakers about what they learned about their film, Maine, the power of friendship and hope for peace and understanding in this contentious time.
What brought you to Maine and the program at South Portland High School?
Yael Luttwak: Hearing that we could document a team of immigrant girls as they went through this program was just something we had to jump at. The girls hail from Maine as well as the Congo, Jamaica, Somalia and Vietnam, all working together in the whitest state in the country – but a state that’s also experiencing an influx of immigrants from all over the world.
“Maine Girls’ ” filming was framed by two events that shaped a lot of the discussion around immigration – the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 and Donald Trump’s “travel ban” executive order this year. How did they affect your film and your subjects?
Luttwak: We started filming right before the Paris attacks, which is something we could never have predicted. It was a big turning point, geopolitically, and it provides one of the turning points in the film, where the world entered the classroom for these girls, individually and with each other.
Abigail Tannebaum Sharon: The thing about a documentary is you can never predict what will happen. We’re dealing with real life, real stories, real people. We meant to chronicle the experience of these eight weeks of the program, but after the election, we felt we had to bring it as up to date as possible. There were so many things we didn’t see coming, and I can’t imagine us not capturing these girls at that moment.
What was it like seeing these experiences through the eyes of these young women?
Sharon: With teens, you see them look older, having the same experience the rest of us have had reflected on their faces. I don’t want to give away what happens, but I will say that “Maine Girls” is a beautiful true story. These young women are so inspiring as you watch their relationship grow. What’s so nice is seeing women from different worlds truly build their own bridges. It doesn’t just happen. You have to do the work.
Luttwak: It’s always interesting to return to a subject a year later to see how their lives have changed. In this case, it was really momentous because of how the world had changed.
Sharon: I’ll just say, please come see the film. These girls are truly astounding and inspiring.
What did you take away about Maine, specifically on this issue?
Luttwak: There’s little not to love about your state. And it’s downright inspiring how kind people in Maine still are to one another, the decency that still exists. It’s not all rosy. The challenges of, for example, high schools that have been essentially all-white for 100 years coping with an influx of immigrants and different languages. It presents some challenges in adapting, and we do observe that in the film. And that’s OK; that’s honest.
You have a crowdfunding campaign up to complete the film. What’s left to be done, and when can people see the film?
Sharon: The film’s complete, essentially, but we’re doing post-production: color correction, titles, clearing footage, and we’re preparing for a festival run. But ultimately, the best place for “Maine Girls” to be seen is in schools, to have other girls do the same curriculum. Even though it’s Maine, these are American girls.
Luttwak: Crowdfunding is such a humbling experience, with people from all over crowding around and supporting the film. Any amount helps. These girls are inspiring, and that’s something we could all use a lot of right now.
“Maine Girls” is in post-production. Check back here for news of when and where you can see it. In the meantime, check out the film’s fundraising page, indiegogo.com/projects/maine-girls-teens#. As of last week, they were at about 20 percent of the $15,000 needed to bring this uniquely Maine, uniquely American story to your screen.