Capturing authentic stories of Arab American Dearborn

December 6, 2023

A halal butcher, a local rapper, a podcasting empire and a beloved coffee house are all featured in the “Arab American Perspectives: Filmic Visions of Dearborn” student film showcase.

Photo of Dearborn rapper Esa Mighty, who is featured in a student short documentary film
Rapper Esa Mighty of Dearborn, left, talks about his life in the Southend with UM-Dearborn JuMP students Cortney Markham and Aaron Vensko. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Dearborn rapper Esa Mighty stood on the playground of Salina Elementary School and watched smokestacks puff with pollution in his Southend neighborhood. He grew up playing on those monkey bars before he started spitting bars.

“I’m living out my life and then I make the soundtrack,” said Mighty, sharing a line from his song “Reflection.”

Passing cars slowed down when they saw Mighty surrounded by a UM-Dearborn student camera crew. One man even hung out of the window of his Chrysler LeBaron and asked if he could be an extra. But Mighty, whose family is from Yemen and moved to Dearborn when he was a small child, was the only star needed for this show — and his stage is his community.

UM-Dearborn Journalism and Media Production senior Cortney Markham mic’d Mighty up and said, “Is there anything off limits to ask?” The 24-year-old paused to think. “Nah,” he responded. “Ask me anything and I’ll tell you anything.”

With that, JuMP junior Aaron Vensko’s camera started rolling. Mighty, whose given name is Esa Mohamed, expressed what it’s like to be from the Southend, one of Dearborn’s most under-resourced communities. A group of UM-Dearborn students captured footage of this charismatic resident’s life and thoughts throughout the fall semester.

Rapper Esa Mighty in his Dearborn home
Before working on his music, Esa Mighty lights a candle to create the right mood in his home. Film still from "Becoming Mighty"

Their documentary, “Becoming Mighty,” is one of five films about Dearborn's Arab American communities produced by students in Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler’s “Media Production for the Metropolitan Community” course.

The “Arab American Perspectives: Filmic Visions of Dearborn” documentary showcase — the culmination of a semester-long project that paired student filmmakers with community members to capture the essence of life in Dearborn — will take place at 7 p.m. Dec. 14. at the Arab American National Museum, 13624 Michigan Ave, in Dearborn.

Want to attend? Check out this website, RSVP here or contact Adam Sekuler

The short films – the longest are 15 minutes –  document Arab American life in Dearborn and, in addition to Mighty’s story, feature a generations-old halal butcher, a podcasting empire and a beloved local coffee house.

“Recent events have underscored how vital it is to share authentic stories of Arab America, and there is no better place to do that than Dearborn,” Sekuler said. “We think audiences will come away from these films feeling even closer to their neighbors and their community.”

Guided by metro Detroit-based filmmaker Moussa El Moussa, who served as the course’s filmmaker-in-residence, students honed their skills and navigated the creative process, ensuring the films authentically reflected the narratives of Dearborn’s Arab American community.

This course is oriented around interacting with Arabs in the community. I am an Arab in the community and I wanted students to know there isn’t any question you can’t ask me — ask me about being Arab, about being a filmmaker, about being a person,” El Moussa said. “These students have been learning more than technical and artistic lessons. They also are learning about humanity in themselves and in others through these connections. I’m so inspired by them, their tenacity, their vulnerability and their devotion.”

Sekuler, in partnership with the Center for Arab American Studies, also brought four renowned Arab American filmmakers to the UM-Dearborn campus and the AANM. Usama Alshaibi, Jude Chehab, Sarra Idris and Dearborn native Mike Mosallam, creator of the critically acclaimed TLC series “All-American Muslim,” all consulted with the students about their films, in addition to screening and discussing their own work.

JuMP senior Michael Beard said the filmmakers described their processes, shareds their work and guided students on ways to visually portray a story. They even mentored students on the finer details. For example, Beard’s film features Ronnie Berry and his 60-year-old butcher shop, Ronnie’s Halal Meats. When Beard and his group pitched their idea, visiting filmmaker Mosallam asked a seemingly simple question: “How are you going to make raw meat look good?”

Beard said that question helped their group think about how they’d frame the shots and realize the importance of capturing active movement. They shot b-roll of lamb sizzling on the grill, employees stocking the counter, Berry handing packages to customers and more. “It helped us know what shots to get the next time we went to the shop,” Beard said. “The advice we’ve gotten in this class is amazing because it’s both big picture and detail-oriented  — everyone taught us something new. The filmmakers, Adam and Moussa are passionate about their craft. I’m so glad that I took this class. If you have the chance to take a class with Adam in the future, do it.”

Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler, standing, discusses equipment with student Mike Hill.
Assistant Professor Adam Sekuler, standing, discusses equipment with student Matt Sas. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Not only did Sekuler bring Arab American filmmakers to the classroom and host a film series, he also secured grant funding from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to purchase new audio/video equipment for students to use. Then he, along with CASL Senior Television Engineer Greg Taylor, gave them tutorials on how to use it.

The students met on Mondays during the fall to learn about equipment, discuss their challenges, and thoughtfully review and critique each other’s film progress. In the student film “Ronnie Berry: Cutting Edge of Tradition,” a bird flies across a panning shot of a Dearborn skyline. JuMP senior Dominique Edwards praised her peers’ footage while viewing the film in class. “That bird was like a paid actor,” she said. “We are getting cinematic around here.”

College of Education, Health and Human Services junior Lillian Settles, who is majoring in educational technology, said she took the course because she enjoys seeing what people create. She also wants to learn different ways to present information — video, writing, graphic design, photography and more — in her future education-based career. 

JuMP senior Quintan Delaat — who has directed, written and shot short films professionally — said he understands camera work, but the course has encouraged him to use more experimental shots. For example, he has orange-lit shots to visually show daytime and blue-lit shots for nightfall in the documentary that features the popular coffee shop and community space Qahwah House. “This class allowed me to think creatively and gives us the experience we need to work in film production after graduation,” he said.

A JuMP UM-Dearborn student films a short documentary at Ronnie Berry's Halal butcher shop
Student Taylor Mcallister gets video footage in Ronnie Berry's shop for the documentary, "Ronnie’s Cuts of Cultures." Photo/Michael Beard

Back in Dearborn’s Southend, with the camera rolling, UM-Dearborn student filmmakers followed Mighty as he gave a tour of his neighborhood. He showed them his places of inspiration like the Dearborn Bakery on Dix and Salina Intermediate School, where he participated in his first poetry contest at 13.

Markham then asked Mighty a visibly obvious question about the smoke billowing over the community he grew up in. Candid like he promised, the lyricist's answer was a mix of reality and hope.

“To be honest, everyone around here has breathing issues. That’s why I always swam in the pool as a kid. You gotta strengthen your lungs,” Mighty said. “You can’t always change your circumstances, but you’ve got to stay motivated to do your best. I am an optimistic person — when the lights are on the smokestacks at night, you can see beauty in them.”

“I was put on this Earth to make music that brings awareness, inspires and creates change. But change doesn’t happen overnight. So live well where you are,” he continued. “Remember that humble beginnings is a strength. It’s not about where you start, but where you finish.”

The films were made possible by the Journalism and Media Production department, with support from Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, University of Michigan Arts Initiative, Center for Arab American Studies, and the Arab American National Museum.

Student filmmakers are Ava Abramowicz, Atia Siddiqui, Daniel Lasecki, Dominique Edwards (The Wisdom of Oz); James Jackson, Matthew Sas, Eric Welch (Ronnie Berry: Cutting Edge of Tradition); Cortney Markham, Lillian Settles, Christina Townsend, Aaron Vensko (Becoming Mighty); Nathalie Barajas, Michael Beard, Preston Welborne, Taylor Mcallister (Ronnie’s Cuts of Cultures); and Sami Al-Faqee, Quintan Delaat, Sydney Mckinney-Williams, Joshua Shelley (Qahwah). 

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.