Mason student wins Capital Emmy for documentary about local school board candidate

Mohammed Saffouri's award-winning documentary, “The First,” follows 24-year-old Libyan American Abrar Omeish as she campaigns for a seat on the Fairfax County School Board.

George Mason University senior Mohammed Saffouri is being honored with a prestigious Capital Emmy for his documentary film “The First.” The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter announced in May that “The First” was one of 21 winning entries in the 2019 Student Production Award Winners.

Saffouri’s film follows 24-year-old Libyan American Abrar Omeish as she campaigns for a seat on the Fairfax County School Board. Omeish was elected to the school board in November 2019, becoming one of Virginia’s youngest elected officials and the first Muslim woman to win a seat on the board.

“When I started making the film, I realized how important telling her story was,” said Saffouri, who is pursuing a degree in film and video studies. “I wanted to make sure that I told it well.”

Mohammed Saffouri

Saffouri made the film as part of a documentary directing class taught by Maura Ugarte, an assistant professor in directing and editing in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The class requires that students produce an individually researched, directed and edited short documentary.

Saffouri said he got the idea to tell this story after seeing Omeish’s posters at a restaurant and then seeing her on campus. He said the first day of shooting involved a public forum in which candidates met with prospective constituents.

“It was a crazy event,” Saffouri said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t agree with her, and whenever it was her turn to talk, they were booing at her.”

The film describes some of the anti-Muslim sentiment Omeish encountered and chronicles her ability to win over constituents.

“Mohammed did an excellent job of capturing intimate moments with the main participants,” Ugarte said. “He was willing to push himself creatively and technically to get the best footage. He managed shooting on a chaotic election day, captured all the key moments of doubt and excitement, and brought the audience along with him.”

Omeish said that she was “very proud of Mohammed and the student team that worked so hard to make this possible.”

“As a Muslim who has grown up seeing overwhelmingly negative coverage of minorities in the media, I am inspired by their commitment to work toward better representation and to capture stories that show strength and empowerment,” Omeish said. “It is so important for young people to see themselves in leadership, and for them to believe that they can be there too—that happens when public perceptions change. Films like this one are a key step in that direction.”

The Capital Awards has a pool of applicants from high schools and colleges in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. In 2019, there were 21 winners in 18 categories out of a pool of 92 entries.

Saffouri said he heard that he won the award while driving in the car with his sister, after visiting their grandmother.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Saffouri said. “We heard my name, and my sister and I were screaming in the car.”

Saffouri said that he is more motivated than ever to pursue a career in filmmaking and tell the stories of eople who have been overlooked by Hollywood.

“Winning gave me a really big push to believe in myself more,” Saffouri said.