Najmeddine Harrabi ‘13 speaks often about how his upbringing as a shepherd boy in Tunisia has led him to Los Angeles where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Film and Television Production at University of Southern California. He reckons that his background has propelled him to do what he has always wanted to do – to create art.
Najmeddine is a Tunisian filmmaker, comedian and all round creative. As a teenager navigating the post-Arab Spring era, he founded WeYouth-Tunisia, a nonprofit aimed at motivating young people to engage in decision making. While at African Leadership Academy, he explored his passion for filmmaking, sci-fi and comedy before going on to the University of Notre Dame as a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar where he wrote and directed a range of theatre and film projects, including his own stand-up comedy show. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Film and Television Production at the University of Southern California.
We caught up with him to find out more about his journey so far, his thoughts about the creative arts, as well as his plans for the near future:
Who is Najmeddine?
My name is Najmeddine Harrabi. I was born in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, which is an inner region in Tunisia where the Arab Spring started actually (I take a lot of pride in the fact that my people are revolutionaries). I come from a family of shepherds. We grew up in the mountains most of our lives. Being a shepherd…I really think that’s one of the most essential parts of my identity. Growing up with my grandpa and leaving early in the morning to hike up the mountain and herd sheep has instilled so much in me – it’s a big, big part of my character.
I grew up in a marginalized community, although I didn’t grow up thinking we were marginalised. I had a beautiful childhood, an amazing experience growing up in the countryside where we would sit around a fire at night, sleep outside in the summer months and see a night full of stars. What a gift that was, now that I look back. But there were a lot of difficulties we faced. We had no running water and no electricity. One day, at the age of six or seven, my grandpa bought us this beautiful tiny yellow black-and-white TV with antennas that were taller than me at the time. It was on this little battery TV that I watched movies for the first time. And from there everything changed because I saw all kinds of things, all kinds of movies, and I suddenly started thinking, “oh maybe I should get an education if I ever want to do something big with my life.”
Is that when you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker – watching movies on that yellow TV?
I had this dream but I felt I had to hide it and protect it from the world. The only person I told that I wanted to make films was my grandma. I told her that I’m going to go to America and make movies. I didn’t know if the young me really believed it, but I always wanted to act. I wanted to perform; I wanted to create art. But when I got to schooling in what I thought was a more advanced region, I told people that I was going to be an engineer. People from other areas looked down on those from my area so I didn’t want to give them another reason to look down on my people, so I said I was going to do really well in school and become an engineer.
How did you hear about ALA and why did you apply?
I was doing an exchange program in the United States and there were a few Tunisians I met there who got accepted into ALA so that’s how I found out about it. When I applied to ALA, well, I had seen death. I had seen life. I had seen a revolution.
By the age of 17, I had already seen so many crazy things that I had to really think about my purpose. I had to think about what I wanted to do with my life and so ALA seemed like the right choice – and that’s what it offered me: two years to rediscover myself.
And was the comedy special you put together as a student at ALA part of that rediscovery?
I really felt the need to express myself and comedy seemed perfect. So I decided to do a comedy show. It was basically just me doing different characters and being silly in front of people and having an audience. I would stay up for hours, basically not sleep, because I was developing this show but it was such a great creative experience for me to find my voice. Not everybody liked it but most people did!
What would you say are some of your proudest accomplishments to date?
Hmmm. I’ve gotten a few scholarships, I’ve gotten to see the world, but there has been no better day than the day I graduated from the University of Notre Dame last year. I flew my mom to the United States. She had never been on a plane before, so, you know, imagine having her at my graduation – and for that to be her first moment outside of Tunisia. It’s my proudest accomplishment just showing her where I got an education, something she made possible; seeing her in the environment where I’ve made friends was fantastic. I just can’t express enough how supportive the film department at Notre Dame was in so many ways I can never thank them enough for. So, without a doubt, my graduation day was my proudest accomplishment.
What advice would you give to young Africans pursuing a career in the creative arts?
I think I’d say, surround yourself with the best of the best, and keep looking for information about what you want to do. Don’t be intimidated by big words – you know, people make the artistic field sound like aerospace sometimes, but it’s not. So just simplify things. Also, find collaborators. Yes it’s important to focus on knowing and learning as much as you can about your craft but don’t try to master everything, instead find collaborators who are excellent at what they do. Oh also – find mentors, oh my goodness I can’t stress that enough – find a mentor!
What would you say to those who don’t think a career in the creative arts industry is viable?
A career in the arts will always be viable! The landscapes of industries may change but there will always be a demand for storytelling and for entertainment – especially in Africa now. Everyone wants content that is exclusive and unique now, meaning that not just anybody can come and make movies “about Africa” and leave. So there is space for more personal, more specific art – as long as people believe in the art they’re creating.
And what are your plans for the near future?
Right now I’m working on developing my one man show. I’m about to start raising funds. I also have two years of film school to finish. There are projects I want to film back home. I also want to shoot my second comedy special. Basically, I’m always trying to create every day. I also have a few secret projects that I can’t share details yet but yes – those are my plans for the next two, three years.
What message would you like to tell your future self?
Keep your head down, keep working, and always keep an eye on who you’re surrounding yourself with. Be kind, always. Be good to yourself. Stay focused. Remember how far you have come and where you’re from and what why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You’ve made a lot of sacrifices to go this dream, so never forget how far you’ve come.
Follow Najmeddine on Instagram to get updates on his projects.
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