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Empowering Youth to Share Their Stories Through Film

Shadi Toloui-Wallace | Feb 7, 2020

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If you’re a young person between the ages of 11-15, living almost anywhere in the world, you might think you lead a pretty boring life. 

You may or may not have parents who are around a lot. You go to school, you play video games, hang out with your friends, and spend hours scrolling through YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, obsessing over other people’s lives – which can seem way more interesting or important than your own.

But imagine if you had the skills to view your own life as a story, a valuable one, filled with lessons of growth, crisis, victory, wisdom and excitement? How would you tell that story? Who would be the main protagonist? A famous superhero or model – or better yet, you? 

In this episode of Cloud9 we interview Esther Maloney, a theatre and film actor, director, writer, educator and producer who believes everyone has a story to tell. 

Esther has a mission – empowering young people with the voice, tools and skills to tell their own stories in the most profound, accessible, and creative ways. She holds a BFA in Theatre Performance, recently completed her Masters in Education at The University of Toronto, and just released her first children’s book, titled The Lovebird’s Freedom

Esther Maloney holding up her book 'The Loverbird's Freedom'

We begin by talking about Esther’s inspiration for The Lovebird’s Freedom. The story follows a young girl named Lydia, grieving the passing of her aunt. At the same time, Lydia begins to help her neighbor rehabilitate some wild baby Lovebirds. When it’s time for the Lovebirds to fly from their cage into the wild, Lydia begins to explore her feelings of loss and sadness with her father. Their conversation comes to imagine death as its own kind of freedom, and draws on the words of Abdu’l-Baha when he said:

To hold that the spirit is annihilated upon the death of the body is to imagine that a bird imprisoned in a cage would perish if the cage were to be broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the breaking of the cage. This body is even as the cage and the spirit is like the bird: We observe that this bird, unencumbered by its cage, soars freely … for there is no greater paradise for the grateful birds than to be freed from their cage. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 262.

In our interview, Esther shares how her maternal grandmother introduced her to storytelling at a young age, and how it became a great source of inspiration early on in Esther’s life. Esther reflects on visiting her grandmother, one of the first French Canadian Baha’is, and how she learned to fuse prayer with wonder, creativity and a love for being in nature. 

Following a Baha’i Youth Year of Service with a travelling project called Diversity Dance Theatre, which fused dance and performance with social action, Esther began to pursue a career in theatre. She joined various theatre companies, wrote plays, performed at festivals, toured Canada’s urban and remote communities, and also made a few appearances on Canadian television. As she developed her professional career she started to ask big, life-altering questions, really rooted in the representation of diversity on stage, or the lack of it, in the theatre, film and performance world. She began to explore the material most often used in theatre, and recognized a gap in who and what experiences they reflected.

After much prayer and reflection, Esther began to work on many different projects – freelancing as an artist, running community arts programs, teaching drama in high schools and writing plays with youth – which connected back to her passion for telling diverse stories with diverse audiences. Around this time, Esther connected with the Baha’i Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program in her neighborhood in Toronto. The Junior Youth Program, a global movement, inspires junior youth between the ages of 11-15 to work together toward building a better world. Each week young people gather together to study materials based on moral and spiritual development, build bonds of friendship, develop their artistic talents, and serve their communities.

Esther saw this space as the perfect opportunity to explore certain concepts of the junior youth program and to develop art with those groups. Together, they began to learn about how these concepts could influence storytelling and the ways they could shape narratives about young people. Esther, really inspired by these young people, recognized their capacity to articulate their experiences. The youth asked profound questions and began to write short stories based on the reality of their lives.

The youth then decided they would like to make a film to showcase their stories. So, with the assistance of the junior youth and those helping to tutor them, Esther began assisting in the writing of film scripts and improvising these narratives. Soon they began the filming process, and once the films were complete they screened them for families and friends at a local community center. 

In our interview, Esther shares how the youth learned that no job, whether in front of or behind the camera, was too big or small. They discovered that the spirit of service in which the youth offered their time exhibited the true embodiment of the following Baha’i quote: 

All effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 176-177.

Esther also shares that these words of Abdu’l-Baha’s inspired the young filmmaker’s prayerful attitude towards the project and its mission: 

I rejoice to hear that thou takest pains with thine art, for in this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one’s art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paint brush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple. – Abdu’l-Baha, in a tablet translated from the Persian.

Esther shares more about this creative and collaborative process in greater detail in her interview with Cloud9, and how this project – now known as the Illumine Media Project – has taken shape over the past seven years. 

Today, Illumine Media operates with a large team of collaborators, and showcases their films in classrooms and community spaces across the city of Toronto. The Illumine Media Project offers a safe and collaborative space where youth can build capacity by learning in action and developing their powers of expression, through writing, acting, directing, operating a camera, capturing audio, editing film and composing and recording music.

We wrap up our conversation by discussing how Esther’s involvement in the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program and Illumine Media inspired her masters thesis, which explores the way youth relate to media and how the media informs the way they see themselves and relate to one another. Join us in our illumining discussion about youth, film and social transformation!

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