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Unpacking Harry Lee's humanitarian film-making project

University grad uses forthcoming documentary to better Somali students' future

Harry Lee, a 2008 University graduate, is currently producing a documentary titled “Abaarso,” which follows the lives of students who attend the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somalia. The institution is the only one in the country that sends students to American schools and universities including MIT, Amherst, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon.

Abaarso School serves as a beacon of hope in a country with limited opportunities for advancement. With the documentary, Lee and his filmmaking team aspired to chronicle the promising journeys of Somali students working toward a better future.

Arts & Entertainment had the opportunity to speak with Lee about his inspirations and the ongoing filming process.

Arts & Entertainment: How did your time at the University influence your current career? Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

Harry Lee: I've loved movies my entire life. My siblings and I always had encyclopedic knowledge of actors and actresses, even as little kids, so the passion has always been there. But this is my first serious foray into filmmaking. While I didn't study film in college, my U.Va. education sharpened my problem solving skills and nurtured my creativity. Those two attributes account for most of my work as a producer.

AE: What was your inspiration for “Abaarso?”

HL: I was inspired to make this film after watching the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Undefeated.” I saw some parallels between the student-athletes from “Undefeated” and the children of Abaarso. Both groups faced way more hurdles in life than any students should in order to carve out brighter futures for themselves and their families. But I had never seen a group of kids more impressive and deserving of recognition than those at Abaarso. I approached an old friend of mine, Ben Powell, who was running his own media production company, and we talked through the concept until we had a shared vision for the movie that we both felt compelled to pursue.

AE: What is the main message you hope to portray through “Abaarso?” What aspects of the documentary will entice audiences to watch it?

HL: “Abaarso” is going to be a film about hope and the transformative role of education in floundering countries. I think audiences will be captivated by the students who are impressive, tenacious, likable and take seriously their role in developing their country. The students we're following in “Abaarso” are the first Somalis to get into U.S. universities in over thirty years but because there are no other alternatives in their own country. The school decisions they face mean the difference between a world-class education in the U.S. and a dead end in Somalia.

AE: You served as Assistant Headmaster and Dean of Boys for Abaarso School. How did this experience affect your perception of the Somali people and culture?

HL: Somali people get a bad rep around the world from the actions of few — most notably depicted in “Black Hawk Down,” “Captain Phillips” and even “South Park.” They are often seen as either monsters or victims but the reality is that most Somalis are friendly people who care much about their families and want the best for their children.

AE: What precautions do you have to take while filming in Somalia, a country with widespread civil unrest and violence?

HL: We travel with an AK-47-wielding Somali soldier and stay on the heavily fortified Abaarso School campus but the area in which we are filming is distant from the pirates and terrorists most frequently associated with the country. I'm much more afraid of getting into a car accident in a country devoid of emergency response and well-trained doctors than I am of getting abducted by pirates or attacked by terrorists.

AE: When do you anticipate to release “Abaarso” to the public?

HL: My team expects to wrap production for “Abaarso” in summer of 2015. From then on, there are numerous variables that enter the equation like the film festival circuit, crowdfunding campaigns, production houses, television networks and more. We will find the best possible home for the film at that point in time but different outcomes may drastically shift the release date. We will have to keep you posted!

AE: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to produce more films?

HL: I would love to continue producing films that I'm passionate about and working with great partners like Ben Powell and Kate Griendling. We feel like we hit the jackpot with this project — being able to document what could very well be the turning point in Somalia's development. Being a producer is a fun, challenging job. I've learned a lot in my first filmmaking endeavor and I would definitely chase this experience if the right project came up.

AE: Is there anything else you would like add?

HL: My team has only been able to do what we've done so far with the support of our families and friends, including many fellow Wahoos. Just want to thank the U.Va. community for all the love.