Catching up with Alumni: Sahar Hakim-Hashemi '09
After leaving Breck, what did the next part of your journey look like?
I graduated from Breck in 2009 and after spending the summer in Iran, my motherland, I started my undergraduate journey in the Fall of 2009 at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). As it had been my dream to go to MIT, I was very excited to be there and joined by so many different associations as I enjoyed making new friends and connections with people from very diverse backgrounds.
While the first semester at MIT was filled with new social connections and excitement, the second semester started to reveal to me the actual true side of student life that I had signed up for by being at MIT. Because I was no stranger to being a high-achieving student at Breck and spending most of my time on schoolwork, I found myself embracing the extreme student culture at MIT at first. With my peers, we used to make fun of ourselves and laugh at how we had not slept for days or had not eaten much or were studying constantly to the point of ridiculously feeling like we were falling apart. We found it very funny and amusing when we were pulling back to back all-nighters together. We saw our crazily unbalanced lives as a reflection of our quirky identity as MIT students that bonded us. The major mottos amongst MIT students that were promoted during orientation to us freshmen were "Sleep is for the Weak" and "Work, Friends, Sleep: Choose Two." It seemed that being able to forgo sleep and other essential human needs to attend to schoolwork was almost like a rite of passage to being an MIT student, which is why we were so enthusiastic about our unbalanced lives during our first year.
Since the student population at MIT included a high concentration of extremely ambitious, studious, and perfectionist type personalities, as I entered my sophomore year at MIT, I noticed that the pressure that my peers and I put on ourselves was starting to produce a lot of stress that gradually developed into mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, for many of us. The lively social life that excited me during my freshman year was dwindling as my peers and I had less and less time to spend with each other. My whole life started to slowly revolve more and more on just doing schoolwork while I sacrificed sleep, social life, spiritual practices, and all other parts of my life that brought me joy, peace, and happiness. Even though all my focus was on academics, I was still always behind on my work, which intensified my distress even more. The unbalanced life that I laughed at and found funny during freshman year was not so comical anymore as it was seriously damaging my health, and I felt like I could not escape it.
You have recently completed the film, "Sleep is for the Strong," serving as the film's Director. Can you tell us about the project?
As I entered my junior year at MIT, I had depression, anxiety, and some other psychological issues that affected my daily life. Due to constant anxiety, I had developed chronic shortness of breath that had become a normal, accepted part of my life. Sometimes, I would have episodes of being out of breath to the point that I felt I was going to die in a moment. My depression also reached a climax, where I no longer cared to be alive, which was scary. Meanwhile, most of my peers were also struggling with the psychological consequences of constant stress or mental health issues that had almost become a given part of being a student at MIT. After graduating from MIT in 2013, I started looking for jobs. However, as my mental health issues continued and I pondered what happened to myself and my peers during our four years at MIT, I felt a need to express what my peers and I went through.
Several months after graduation, as I experienced my first unexpected series of panic attacks, I started to work with other MIT peers on the ideation of the "Sleep is for the Strong" project, which was titled as a response to the "Sleep is for the Weak" motto at MIT. We made a video and postered the whole campus with the "Sleep is for the Strong" slogan while emailing the student body asking them to join us in sharing their stories on camera about their student life challenges and mental health issues at MIT. More than 50 MIT students were filmed and featured into what became the "Sleep is for the Strong" documentary film to raise awareness and spark a conversation on hopes for healthier student lifestyles and more self-love amongst students at MIT and beyond with the main message being "We are all in this together!"
What type of work goes into creating a film that someone outside of your field might not know about?
Although I got a degree in Cognitive Science at MIT, my humanities concentration was in Comparative Media Studies, for which I took writing, theater, and several filmmaking classes. Following my graduation from MIT, I volunteered part-time at Cambridge Community Television (CCTV) taking more filmmaking classes there while filming and editing programs for the TV station. As I knew this documentary would be interview-focused, I decided to film each student with three different cameras from three different angles to bring more dynamism by switching between angles with multi-cam editing. The interview sounds were recorded separately with a microphone connected to a sound recorder and later synchronized with the recorded visual footage during editing. To showcase visually the stories of interviewees, I filmed what is called "B-Roll" footage of students during daily life at MIT or re-enacting scenes reflecting issues mentioned in the film. I also had to record ambient sounds and footage from major areas in the MIT campus to paint a picture of campus life in the documentary.
While the campaigning, planning, and filming on MIT campus only took a few months to finish, I was working part-time on the post-production of the film for the 5 years that followed. After running an online fundraising campaign that took several months to prepare and promote for covering filmmaking costs, I started to work solely on the editing of the film that was a long-drawn-out process for me. I had to look over around 60 hours of recorded footage and sound to compile a 50-min documentary. Listening to the interview films over and over again was like choosing to revisit stories of past trauma, which made the dedication to editing over the years personally challenging for me. Fortunately, I had two amazing documentary filmmakers as my mentors, who supported and guided me not only in the technicalities of film editing but also in the narrative structure of the film. Even though I myself was one of the interviewees in the film, my mentors suggested that I also narrate the film as the director. My narration itself took many trials and errors to record and finalize, especially since it was done many years after my graduation. There were several drafts to this documentary that were each reviewed by my small crew for feedback many times over the years.
My perfectionist personality that carried from Breck to MIT to the making of this film surprisingly served as an obstacle many times to finish this film. In contrast to a fiction film that has a set screenplay that is edited accordingly, a documentary film can have infinite variations during the editing process, which means the director can go on changing and fixing things forever, not being able to call an end to it. I am still personally shocked that the documentary is finally finished and released!
Did anything about your Breck education in particular help you to create this project? Any memories or stories that shaped the work you have done?
I was very fortunate to have been a student at Breck, which offered a truly multi-faceted student experience. What I respected most about Breck was the value in community, spirituality, student-teacher relations, diversity, service, and unique extra-curricular experiences. While at Breck, I had a special connection with Ms. Roessler, my English teacher, who actually gave me feedback for the "Sleep is for the Strong" documentary along the way. When I was at Breck, she set up many occasions for me to express my stories in front of her classes, which allowed me to find and grow the storyteller inside myself. My English classes with Ms. Roessler and Mr. Crow really provided the foundation for my self-expression in English, which was the second language that I was newly learning when I came to Breck. The presentation skills that I learned through Science Research with Ms. Fruen were very valuable in my journey as well. Additionally, I got introduced to filmmaking actually at Breck with our Red-Winged Blackbird project in Ms. Johnson's biology class.
In addition to academic experiences at Breck, the social environment that I engaged in was crucial in my growth, particularly as a minority student and recent immigrant in the US. Weekly school assemblies, chapel meetings, and extra-curricular activities helped me realize that I was always part of a larger community that I impacted. Ms. Roessler and Ms. Peeples also played a role in sending me to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) while I was at Breck. It was a conference highlighting the diversity of humanity and bringing students from all backgrounds and characters together to help us understand that we are truly one as human beings with our differences being the beauty of what we learn from each other. These social settings along with the spiritual outlook on life that we explored through Mr. Johnson's class and Papa Bellaimey's classes and talks during weekly chapel meetings instilled in me a deep sense of our unity as human beings and the deeper eternal connections we share in our challenges and personal journeys. The opportunity to give a senior speech at Breck, which transformed me profoundly as a person, allowed me to share my perspective on our deeper unity as humans with the whole school. In essence, the "Sleep is for the Strong" documentary is for the MIT and larger student community what my senior speech was for Breck: a reminder that "We are all in this together!"
Thanks again to everyone at Breck who has been a part of this human journey with me! You have all been a blessing in my life. Thank you and #MustangsUnite!
Sahar can be reached on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sahar-hakim-hashemi/
You can watch and share the "Sleep is for the Strong" documentary here: tiny.cc/SleepStrong
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Learn more about the struggles of the Navajo Nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how Breck students are stepping in to provide vital resources and support to those impacted.