Story by Rebecca Huntington
Editor’s note: This story originally aired on February 20, 2015
A new film follows the journey of a snowboarder Brolin Mawejje on his quest to become the first African Olympic snowboarder. Born in Uganda, he saw snow for the first time when he came to the U.S. at age 12. Snowboarding helped Mawejje escape a difficult home life and bond with a family who brought him to Jackson Hole.
The film, Far from Home, is playing to a packed house of cheering fans at Jackson’s Center for the Arts. While the film features thumping music and lots of high-flying tricks, it’s not your typical snowboarding film.
In the fall of 2012, Brolin Mawejje and the film’s producer Phil Hessler were both sophomores at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Mawejje had also been interning as a lab analyst at Massachusetts General Hospital, which Hessler says is where the idea got started.
“And once the doctors kind of heard about his story,” Hessler says, “they were really taken by it and they told him that he should write a book one day.” Mawejje asked Hessler for advice. “And I said, ‘Well, don’t write a book, let’s find a way to make a film about it.’”
Hessler recruited Galen Knowles, who became the film’s director and cinematographer. Knowles was part of a group of college students who started spending late nights in dorm rooms and at the library working on the project. At first, Knowles says the plan was simply to make a snowboarding film. But then they met with an L.A. filmmaker.
“And he heard the story and said, ‘What are you guys doing making a snowboard film. This is so much bigger than that. Snowboarding is cool. And that’s what makes it cool, but the story is beyond anything that you guys realize right now.’”
Knowles agreed and even dropped out of college to make the film.
Here’s Mawejje’s in the film: “By the time I was two years old, I was being beat by a belt. By the time, I was five years old, I graduated to being beat by a cane. By the time I was 11 years old, I graduated to being beat by a cable.”
His mom emigrated to the U.S. to escape the domestic violence. But she couldn’t bring Mawejje. He didn’t join her until 10 years later when someone she barely knew donated money for his plane ticket. When he landed in Massachussettes, he saw snow for the first time. As for snowboarding, he says it kept him out of trouble and gave him a way to cope in his new environment.
“How I feel when I snowboard is like I’ve left my pain and my worries, you know, behind me,” he says. “When you have a lot of anxiety or anger built into you, you need that escape to keep you grounded.”
As the only African in his school, Mawejje had a hard time making friends until he started spending time on the slopes. Snowboarding helped him build lasting friendships with classmates like Hessler.
“Two days after he moved, he enrolled in my fifth-grade class,” Hessler says. “You know, those first few years were extremely tough for Brolin, he barely spoke any English. But we ended up becoming friends because Brolin joined a soccer team that I was on, my dad was coaching, and then he ended up joining an after-school program that would take kids skiing and snowboarding.”
When the Hessler family moved to Jackson in 2009, they invited Mawejje to join them.
“Over the years, Brolin faced a pretty tough home situation, and ended up living with different families in the area, couch surfing. Brolin was spending so much time with us we just extended the invitation for him to come with us and that’s when Brolin really became a part of my family and a brother to me.
Both he and Hessler joined the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club’s Freeride program and competed in regional and national competitions. And that helped set the stage for Mawejje’s quest to snowboard for Uganda in the 2018 Olympics. But Hessler says that journey is really just beginning.
“Far from Home is done,” Hessler says, “but Brolin’s story is just beginning and we really want to use this film as a launching point to start this campaign to get Brolin to the Olympics.”
Already, they’re working with coaches, who helped set up the New Zealand and Australian Olympic snowboard teams to create an official team so Mawejje can start competing under the Ugandan flag.