As part of our ongoing partnership with Storyhive—a platform which supports BC and Alberta-based creators—we had the opportunity to interview Kenyan-born Vancouver-based filmmaker, Adhel Arop. Arop’s documentary “Who Am I?” examines how war, and specifically her mother’s experience as a child soldier in South Sudan, impacted their family and ultimately her understanding of herself.
All of the images included here were created by Adhel. Watch the film and read the interview below.
Who Am I? — a documentary film directed by Adhel Arop
How’s things going? Kind of a crazy time in the world…
It’s been crazy. I ended up becoming part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I went to the rally to take photos and the images started going all over the internet. It’s been really intense because I wasn’t really expecting it, I just wanted to take some images and then I found myself with a microphone, and now I’m here. Some friends are coming with me to the rally today. There’s a lot happening!
Do you have a background in photography or filmmaking? How did you get started?
It started from modelling. I was always interested in what the person behind the camera was doing. I started maybe five years ago, just on my Nokia phone, taking portraits of people. The pictures were turning out pretty okay, and I ended up getting my own camera and then everywhere I went I would take photos of people.
I had never actually thought about filmmaking before! It was an accident. I wanted to make a music video and my friend told me, ‘Storyhive has grants if you want to make a film’ and I was like, ‘Sure!’ and now two years later, here I am.
A lot of people are trying so hard to make a film or get into filmmaking, and for all the pieces to just sort of fall into place for you, and for it to be something you were passionate about without realising it, that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, I like to be expressive and I think it’s so important to share what’s going on, on the inside. This documentary that I made started with my grade 12 graduation project for my english class, making a story about coming to Canada. We had to compare and contrast The Jade Peony and The Diary of Anne Frank, and I was trying to talk about the themes of identity and war. I was 17 at the time, and my english teacher actually reached out to CBC to try and make it into a film but I never followed through with it because I wasn’t ready.
I feel like this is a really amazing opportunity now, to have a platform where I can speak and share my thoughts and people are supportive of it.
When did you learn about your mother’s experiences?
I actually grew up listening to these stories. I had an auntie who used to braid my hair when I was younger, and every time I would be mad at my mom she would be like, you don’t know who your mom is, you don’t know what she’s been through. You have to come from a place of understanding about her experiences. She told me they were soldiers and I was like, what do you mean by that?
My mom never really spoke much when I was growing up. I didn’t even really know her that much. The only time she ever spoke was when she was telling stories—it was a weird dynamic.
When I was little she said, you’re going to be the one who tells my story, and I said okay but I didn’t know what she meant. I just kind of held it with me as something I was obligated to do. When I got the opportunity and the stage it felt like it was the right time.
From conversations I’ve had with my aunts and other women that were soldiers in the army, a lot of them have said they don’t want to die with their stories. They want the world to know what they’ve been through.
Were you always someone who wanted to share your voice and be heard?
Oh, for sure. They called me like an ambassador of Hillside—I grew up in an immigrant community. I was translating for people, I was making friends with all the new kids. A part of me has always felt like I wanted to protect people. I always wanted to be heard. I used to do poetry for Remembrance Days or any school gatherings, I always wanted to speak. I loved writing from a really young age and I always had diaries and this bubbling thing inside of me like I just want to say it. I’m not the kind of person who can keep things in.
My mom used to say I talked too much as a kid, she said I started talking at 10 months old and it was like I was in a hurry to get what I needed to say out. I can’t be silent, so lately I’ve been sharing poetry and sharing pictures online. A lot of people are quiet and afraid to stir up things, ya know? I’m not. You tell me what you need and I’ll go out and help you with it.
I was gonna ask you about poetry, there’s some really beautiful writing in your film.
I’ve been writing poetry since I was eight. When I came to Canada I didn’t speak any English, I came here when I was four, and by the time I was six I spoke four languages. I picked up English really fast and started writing for the publishing house in our elementary school and then in high school I became a slam poet. But a part of me is kind of shy too.
That’s hard to believe.
I know, I know! But a part of me is quite shy, so when I used to slam I would come there with an alias. I didn’t wanna get connected, I didn’t really make friends, I was scared because I was being so vulnerable. So I would go up on stage and share and then as soon as the competition was over I’d grab my prize and leave. That’s just how I was for years. Now’s the first time in my life where I’ve felt the need to get into a community. I think it was making this film that made me realise that my story is relatable and a lot of people are having these internal conflicts. I have the capacity to share and it helps others when you do, so that’s what’s made me stand behind my writing.
Can you say what one of your aliases was?
Actually now they’re my names on Instagram. Adeezia, it means like a daughter of a king, and Adhel, cause my name is actually Lois, like legally on paper, so I went by Lois until I was 17. So Adhel was an alias too… until now, and now it’s just me.
What was it like being Adhel and Lois at the same time?
I was Lois for such a long time. I started going by Adhel when I would visit family in the states and they would say, no no no, you’re not Lois, people gave you that name, that’s not your name. So I always had people around me telling me, embrace your identity, embrace who you are, and I felt so split. At home I had to respect my culture, speak my language, but when I’d go outside there was pressure from the western world to try and assimilate. So I think I did kind of split into two for a while, and then through art and different forms of expression I was able to weave together my identity and just go by one name, Adhel.
My name is still Lois, legally on paper, and I decided to keep it that way as sort of a memento. I don’t need to change my name legally to be a person, things on paper aren’t right anyway, they even got my birthday wrong and misspelled my middle name. I kinda just gave up on trying to see myself by what’s on a paper and just live as who I am.
Do you feel like you’re at a place now where you’re really comfortable with your identity?
I feel like everyday I’m learning something new about myself and how to embrace different parts of myself because identity is ever-changing. I’ve had people tell me, oh you seem very normal for what you’ve been through.
If I hadn’t been a vocal person I don’t know if I would have made it through all the obstacles of growing up, facing uncertainties and also having a traumatized mother. I was the last person in my family born at the end of the war, so I hadn’t experienced anything but they all had. And so as my childhood was progressing onwards I was trying to figure out why my family was so different and why there was always some weird tension. I was kind of the black sheep of the family, I was more assimilated because I came here way younger.
I think that making my film, Who Am I?, was a moment of therapy where I got to explore the root of the trauma—what war means, and what war means for a child. Getting comfortable with the story helped me map out and understand what my family’s trauma was, and that gave a big air of forgiveness. It also made me see myself differently.
How did you go about structuring the film?
I watched documentaries about the same topic and I made an anti-model (laughs). A lot of the stories weren’t made by someone from the country and they had a white gaze. I was writing poetry and I was sharing it with people before I brought them on the team, so this was literally structured with poetry. Before I hired my DOP I read him a poem and I saw how he reacted to it and I asked if he could capture these emotions.
I also got mentorship from Storyhive and the NSI, so I had an editor and mentor who helped us with the storylines. Initially, I didn’t want to be the face of the film, I wanted it to just be about my mom. But everybody on the team said we need to see it through your perspective, so I actually got added in last. So it starts with one poem and ends with another one and then in the middle, it’s like a stage. The backdrop was Sudan and their history, and the stage was my mother’s history, and the audience was me. The surprise twist was then I got on stage and I was part of it the whole time. So I kinda looked at it like a play and then the people from the industry helped me make it into a documentary. It was fun.
It’s always interesting when a film starts in one direction and then you realise it’s better to frame it another way.
It doesn’t really come together until you’re in the editing room and initially when I went in there, I wanted to show the healing elements of art. My mom sings and she’s always on the phone together with other women, singing on the phone, and there’s always been music playing or people embroidering, and some kind of healing art around my house. I wanted to represent that in the film somehow but it took like 8 months to figure out the line of the story and it was always changing the face of the film.
I’m assuming you enjoyed the process, is filmmaking something you want to keep doing?
Yeah, I’m actually writing a couple proposals right now. I want to actually expand on my mother’s story and look at the first girls that joined the liberation movement in South Sudan, and explore their stories. But I got concussed back in January so I’m healing at the moment and waiting to get better so I can take on a feature film.
One of the last things I wanted to ask is about trying to comprehend something horrific that happens to someone else—something so far outside of what you know personally. Do you have any thoughts about that?
I think that it’s all about perspective. When people look at our story the thing I wanted to avoid was that gaze of ‘poor you’, and look at it like how did you overcome such an obstacle. What made you, what drove you, to see past the sadness and see past the pain and the hurt and be able to gather strength to move forward everyday. As a second generation, this is my mother’s story, and I want you to not look at us with sympathy in your eyes and sadness, we are strong women and we overcame a lot, and we are going to continue to overcome, and we’re not going to let the world’s obstacles take us down. The only way to do that is to stand together, use each other’s voices. My mom has used me as a way to speak because she can’t.
When I speak it’s not coming from a place of sadness, it’s coming from a place of strength. I want everyone to know you should be careful of the way that you look at people. Especially when you’re looking at people who are immigrating to Canada and looking at the immigrant experience, you don’t know what life they lived before they got here. If you take the time to get to know someone there’s a lot you can learn, and a lot you can learn about yourself, and you can build a lot inside of yourself. That’s a way people can understand what war is, what trauma is, it’s by knowing that it’s a human experience and allowing people to be human beings. We all have overcome some kind of struggle, big or small, so if we can continue to see that humanity then we can be able to share our stories.
Last question, who are you? How would you answer that question now?
I am Adhel. I’m a vocal artist. I would call myself a poet and I interpret the world as poetry and that’s the language that I speak. I’m a shy person but I’m able to speak loudly with the things I produce. My name means roads—like there are paths in life, and you gotta choose one, one will lead you home or it’s going to lead you into the bush—the road is a good thing cause it will take you somewhere. Am I gonna go home or go on another adventure?