After enduring an onslaught of verbal and physical abuse at his new Minnesota public school, the young African immigrant is now weighing the most extreme option.
Rhonda is the main character in a provocative new independent film shot in Brooklyn Center and produced in the Twin Cities that unmasks bullying and other struggles that new African immigrant students endure in American schools.
The film, “Boys Cry: A Story of Immigrant Survival,” premiered last week at the Mall of America V. I. P. Theatre. The full-length feature film is fiction but based on true-life, according to its makers. It was co-produced by Brooklyn Center-based End Time Harvest Productions and Ham Lake-based Triwar Pictures.
The film confronts controversial themes, including school violence and a culture of silence and shame around bullying, as well as tensions between the African-American and African immigrant communities. Brooklyn Park businessman-turned-End Harvest filmmaker Reggie Anderson and Triwar filmmaker Nicole Kruex collaborated on the story. Triwar’s Mitchel Jones directed the production.
The movie was filmed in part at Brooklyn Center High School. Brooklyn Center police officers make cameo appearances playing police officers.
The community has rallied around the film. Brooklyn Center Police Chief Kevin Benner and retired Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester attended the premiere. Former Maple Lake Mayor Mike O’Loughlin played a teacher in the movie.
The film has been nominated in 11 categories for the 2013 Nollywood & African Film Critics Awards (NAFCA).
Monique Drier, community liaison for Brooklyn Center Police Department, said the police have worked with Anderson before. Still, they carefully considered lending their name and image to the film.
“We have had a really good relationship with Reggie. We really felt he’s very sincere and credible, and incredible to work with, very respectful. They were just great partners. We need more community partners like this to be able to help youth,” said Drier, who also attended the premier.
Students struggle in silence
Anderson created the story after hearing about bullying and other struggles immigrant students face.
“It’s not just a movie. For us, it’s a movement and a message,” said actress and producer Celi Marie Dean. “We choose film to be our action, our voice.”
Anderson, who immigrated from western Africa to flee civil war, did not realize his son had endured similar bullying until making the film.
His son, Elijah Kondeh, now a 23-year-old senior at St. Cloud State University, read the script and divulged to his father that he, too, had endured extreme bullying. He agreed to star in the film.
The movie cost less than $10,000 to make, and most actors agreed to work for free, Anderson said. If the film makes money, actors will receive some compensation, he said.
“When you are emotionally invested, you can do a lot with a little,” Anderson said.
That experience of bullying is not exclusive to Elijah Kondeh, either. Many of the young cast members, American and foreign-born, shared their personal stories of school bullying during the filming.
“At the first table reading of the script, we have the cast crying as each one explained their story,” Anderson said. “It was the most amazing thing.”
In a recent interview, Anderson and Kondeh spoke about their immigrant journey and the film.
Anderson, 44, whose original name is Lamin Kondeh, is from Liberia and Sierra Leone. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1998 to escape the war.
Anderson attended North Hennepin Community College, Hennepin Technical College and Metro State University. He climbed the corporate ladder and became a training specialist at the printing company R & R Donnelly before taking a buyout. He decided he wanted to tell stories and became a filmmaker. Anderson is now executive producer and director of End Time Harvest Productions.
He said he wanted this film to capture the experience of young African teens trying to find acceptance in American schools.
“They show up here and everything is overwhelming. They want to grab American culture immediately — overnight,” Anderson said. “A lot of devastating things are happening to them. Within a year, they are turning to drinking and drugs. They want to fight in school. They want to disrespect their parents. They are trying to find their way in a new culture.”
Elijah Kondeh was in elementary school when the family immigrated. He said he was singled out, called names, mocked for his dark skin, his hair texture and his African culture. It was at its worst in junior high.
That story line plays out in the film, as the fictional bullies call the young immigrant teen “Africa” and “bush monkey.” At one point in the film, a bully pushes the main character to the floor and tells him, “You’d better take advantage of the free higher education, fool. Somebody’s got to teach the tribe.”
Kondeh, like the film’s main character, kept much of the abuse to himself.
“Your parents and your family members expect you to handle that yourself, no matter how young you are,” Elijah Kondeh explained.
Anderson acknowledged that African boys are often raised to solve these problems on their own. “In African culture you are man, and you are supposed fight for yourself,” Anderson said. But those lessons don’t always translate well in American culture.
Eventually, Kondeh said the bullies indoctrinated him. He so craved acceptance, he changed his clothes, appearance and speech to blend in. He also adopted other destructive behaviors, including drinking alcohol and skipping school.
Kondeh, who graduated from Richfield High in 2008, was able to shed those destructive behaviors before it was too late. He said he relied on his faith community and his family connections.
A cultural abyss
In the film, the main character travels down a much darker path and has less support.
Anderson says the film touches on the delicate subject of tensions between African-American and new African immigrants — tensions he felt in corporate America and which his son has experienced firsthand in school.
“I don’t see it as people being evil. It’s a lack of understanding of our cultures. It’s an opportunity to educate people,” Anderson said.
The film isn’t meant to be divisive. The bullying epidemic in American schools affects students of all cultures and races, Anderson said.
“Awareness is the start of any dialogue,” Anderson said. “If you are not aware of the problem, how do you solve it?”