PINEDALE – Pinedale High School senior Nile Debebe started making documentaries for the annual National History Day contest when he was in seventh grade. His first project was about Malcolm X, a leader in the civil rights movement and the Nation of Islam who was instrumental in developing the concepts of racial pride and black nationalism.
Debebe’s first documentary did not take home any prizes.
The next year, Debebe chose a subject who was not associated with the politically-charged issues of racism and racial violence in America. His film on American nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer won first place in the documentary category at the Wyoming National History Day contest.
While he found Oppenheimer interesting, Debebe said felt that he was censoring himself by avoiding topics that were close to his heart.
Moving forward, Debebe decided to stick with projects he cared about instead of worrying about what an audience might think.
This year, Debebe’s hard work and passion paid off with a documentary he made about the boxer Muhammad Ali. His project, “I Shook up the World! Muhammad Ali v. the United States of America,” took home the first-place prize at the Wyoming National History Day contest. Debebe was invited to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to premiere his documentary at the Oprah Winfrey Theatre last summer.
Debebe’s documentary is about Ali’s arrest by the FBI in 1967 for refusing to step forward and register for the draft. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title and lost his license to box in most states. Ali’s act of defiance, along with the subsequent trial that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, was not only about civil rights but spanned other issues like the morality of the Vietnam War, pacifism based on Islamic teaching.
“I wanted to choose a topic that I identify with,” Debebe said, “Muhammad Ali was so courageous for standing up to the entire United States.”
Debebe, the son of Joseph Debebe and Mary SimBarcelos, defines himself as having mixed racial ancestry. His father migrated from Ethiopia to the United States in the 1980s. Debebe uses his projects to explore his own identity and deal with feelings of isolation.
“I grew up in a community that is predominantly white,” he said, “Working on the Muhammad Ali project really helped me conceptualize how I identify myself. My Ethiopian heritage is ingrained in almost everything I do, from music to a desire to help black communities across the world.”
Making a documentary is not an easy process. Debebe begins by brainstorming potential topics. Once he chooses a subject, he spends weeks doing extensive secondary research and digging into historical archives. Like any true historian, Debebe loves unearthing “hidden gems” of history buried deep in archives.
Next, Debebe begins the grueling job of condensing a massive amount of information down into a 10-minute script. After the script is basically set, he is ready to choose footage, images and animations to make the documentary come to life. The final, and most time consuming task, is editing.
Debebe doesn’t have a background in art and most of his documentary-making skills are self-taught. He enjoys working with computers and technology and has spent hours studying how people made videos on YouTube.
Debebe looks to historical figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali as influences in his life. He is particularly drawn to the writings of Malcolm X after the Nation of Islam leader returned from his pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in 1964.
Malcolm X was moved by the act of worshipping on a basis of equality with millions of people from all nationalities and ethnicities, Debebe explained. Malcolm X softened some of his rhetoric and mistrust toward white Americans and emphasized the idea that love transcends hate when he returned to the United States. Debebe said he believes that Malcolm X’s later doctrine is universal to all people and goes beyond race and religion.
Debebe also looks to his father as a role model. His father grew up in a landless family in rural Ethiopia. He had to travel 10 miles on foot to attend school. Academic excellence and hard work led to a scholarship to attend university in Addis Ababa, the national capital.
In 1974, the monarchy that ruled Ethiopia for centuries was overthrown by a communist revolution led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Debebe’s father found a job with the new government but soon feared for his life as Mengistu increasingly used terror to consolidate his power. Debebe’s father fled to Greece and applied for amnesty to the United States. He succeeded and went on to receive a doctorate degree in plant science.
“My father taught me a lot about perseverance and was a big influence in my education,” Debebe said. “He taught me to do the best that I can and really succeed.”
Debebe plans on attending Nebraska Wesleyan University after graduating. He wants to enter politics or work as a civil rights lawyer with the goal of “standing up to unjust laws.” Ultimately, Debebe aspires to be a U.S. senator. But he also wants to continue to use his documentary-making talents to make campaign videos for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Debebe’s powerful documentary “I Shook up the World! Muhammad Ali v. the United States of America” is available to view on YouTube at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds9yECsdsfM.