|Filmmaker Osato Dixon poses with children from a Zimbabwe orphanage where he worked as a Fulbright Scholar.
When Osato Dixon, 27, was a child growing up in Baltimore, his mother was afraid to let him play outside. Both his parents are immigrants from Nigeria, and his mother encouraged him to read and concentrate on his education. Dixon stayed in the house and became fond of drawing, learning to express what he called his "desire for the outside world" by recreating it on paper.
Dixon—who will graduate this week with a master of fine arts in film from Columbia's School of the Arts
—had to stay inside because, like two of his three siblings, he was born with albinism, the congenital absence of pigmentation in the eyes, skin and hair, and was vulnerable to the sun.
Albinism and race have been important themes in the creative work Dixon has done since he learned to draw. In high school, he created an animated video about a chess piece that didn't want to play because, underneath, it was a different color, neither black nor white.
His master's thesis at Columbia, Your Name is My Name, a short documentary about albino children in Africa, grew out of his experience as a 2007 Fulbright Scholar in Zimbabwe, where albinism is more common than the United States. In some areas of Africa, discrimination toward albinos isolates them from society and makes them targets of violence.
Dixon visited schools and orphanages around the country meeting dozens of young people with albinism. The film shows his encounters with several of them, including two orphan boys: Panashe, who is ten years old, and Kefas, a 13-year-old who is HIV-positive; Miriam, who is 25 years old and dying of skin cancer; and Dr. Isidore Pazakavambwa, a pediatrician who wears a large cowboy hat to protect himself from the sun, even inside.
The experience, Dixon said, helped show him "what it meant to actually be an albino, to accept this condition that we are in, and hopefully be able to be okay with it, to be better than what we believe we are."
Dixon credited Columbia's film professors, in particular Jamal Joseph
, chair of the graduate film program, with inspiring him to focus his work on African-American youth and contemporary social issues.
Dixon worked with Joseph as a member of the student group, FOCUS (Filmmakers of Color United in Spirit), and as a filmmaker in residence for the Impact Repertory Theater, a nonprofit performing arts group that Joseph founded in Harlem for teenagers and young adults. "He really showed me that media has an important role and responsibility within society, and that challenged me," Dixon said.
Joseph cited Dixon's "courage and compassion as a filmmaker," and said that the children Dixon filmed at the Impact Repertory Theater, "really felt like he was someone who was using the camera as an extension of their heart and soul. Not just as someone trying to capture art for art's sake, but someone trying to capture life for art's sake."
Dixon also named Richard Peña
as a professor who gave him perspective on the history of film and the significance of cinema around the world, saying that Peña taught him that, as filmmakers, "we are involved in a global conversation."
After graduation Dixon will focus on completing a feature-length version of Your Name is My Name, the editing and post-production of the film, as well as entering it into film festivals and attempting to secure distribution.
He also plans to return to Zimbabwe soon to make a fictional narrative film about "young people who are trying to change their worlds, who are unsatisfied with their government and are trying to change what's being given to them," Dixon said.
Now that he is gearing up to enter the world of professional filmmaking, Dixon is a little apprehensive about moving on from graduate school, where he says he has had an invaluable chance to develop as an artist.
"You don't really want it to end," he said. "I'm definitely going to hold onto this time that I've had."