Class of 2017: Portland student focuses on a future in filmmaking

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PORTLAND — Casco Bay High School senior Daniel Kayamba has always been fascinated with storytelling and learning what distinguishes people as individuals.

Now the self-described “artsy one” in his family has earned a $20,000 academic scholarship to attend Columbia College in Chicago, and will be the first in his family to go to an out-of-state school.

Kayamba will graduate June 8 at Merrill Auditorium with the Class of 2017 from Casco Bay, Maine’s first and only publicly funded expeditionary high school.

He began focusing on filmmaking after transferring from Deering High School to Casco Bay for his junior year.

“I’m interested in other people’s stories,” he said. “It’s not always black and white. There are grays and it’s not always as simple as what you can see looking in from the outside.”

In making his films, one of which was accepted into the 2017 Maine Short Film Festival, Kayamba said it’s always his goal to “show empathy” and to educate viewers that “we have no right to judge or make assumptions” about others.

Kayamba is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His father, Lawum, who is a pastor, moved his family to Maine to give his children “more opportunity.”

Kayamba is the second-youngest in a family of seven and said he’s sort of an outlier because of his interest in the arts and the way he dresses and talks.

“This is really my own dream,” he said of his desire to be a filmmaker. “I’m taking the hard road. But to make your dreams a reality you can’t play it safe.”

Even though his older siblings are all studying “very traditional” subjects, like nursing and accounting, Kayamba said his family is “really very supportive” of his goals.

In fact, it was Kayamba’s father who first put a camera in his hands and asked him to film services at the church for immigrants that his father founded about 10 years ago. His mother, Suzanne Makala, works with the elderly.

Kayamba’s submission to the Maine Short Film Festival is called “The First Kiss,” and relies on a series of images and a monologue to tell the story of an older man in a wheelchair re-living his younger years.

While Kayamba takes his core classes, such as English, math, science and social studies at Casco Bay, he’s also enrolled in the new media program at the Portland Arts and Technology High School, which shares the building with Casco Bay.

“This (program) really shaped my life,” he said. “When I started taking (film classes) everything became clear. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what I’d gotten myself into, but I just loved it.”

Kayamba said the films he’s created so far could be described as experimental, as well as nostalgic.

In addition to the Maine Short Film Festival, he’s also submitted a film called “A Solid Wall of Emotion” to the Black Artists Forum, sponsored by the Abyssinian Meetinghouse, that will premiere at the Meetinghouse on May 28.

Kayamba described himself as a “perfectionist,” who tries to get his films “to be as professional-looking as I can. The more I do it, the better I get.”

Whether he’s out with friends or family or on a solo adventure, Kayamba always has his Canon Rebel rolling. And while he captures some landscapes, his focus is mostly on people.

“I am most interested in people. I find people very fascinating; I love people’s faces,” he said.

Kayamba worked two jobs last summer to afford the camera and said he’ll also likely have to work several jobs this summer to earn money for college.

Although he has a full academic scholarship, he’ll have to pay for an apartment off campus, food and other necessities. An older sister lives in Illinois, not too far outside Chicago, so Kayamba said he would have some family nearby to provide support if he needs it.

When it came to applying to film school, Kayamba said he looked at the top film schools across the country and then just took his shot.

In all, he was accepted to six different colleges, with Columbia College being the second one to offer him a spot. “I was so excited,” he said. “I never thought I’d get in.”

At Columbia College Kayamba will major in directing, which he called “my strong suit.” His goal will also be to pad his resume with work outside the classroom.

“I have to keep making film and keep improving,” he said. “I want to create some really cool stuff, but my philosophy will be to always make films with meaning. I don’t just want to do it for the money.”

He added, “Overall, I don’t want to ever compare myself to what others are doing. All I want is to be better than I was yesterday and to balance feedback while trusting my own vision.”

After college, Kayamba plans to eventually come back to Portland, where he hopes to create an emerging film program for young people like himself. “I want to be a mentor and an inspiring symbol.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Daniel Kayamba, a senior at Casco Bay High School in Portland, has been accepted to Columbia College, a prestigious film school in Chicago. His short film, “A Solid Wall of Emotion,” will debut at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at the Abyssinian Meetinghouse, 75 Newbury St.