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AMIGOS has been around for over 55 years and now has more than 30,000 almuni. There are a lot of incredible people who have participated in our programs in Latin America, and I am excited to write about Jeff Zimbalist today. I was reading through old articles and found an interview with him and an AMIGOS staff member.

Jeff Zimbalist is a film professional best known for “Favela Rising”, a documentary shot in one of hundreds of favelas (slums) near Rio de Janerio. The film focuses on the personal transformation of Anderson Sa, a former drug trafficker who established the grassroots AfroReggae movement in an effort to use music and education to draw youth away from a life of crime and drugs. It was named the Film of the Year by the International Documentary Association, won the Best Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and was named Best Documentary at the Sydney International Film Festival. Zimbalist attended high school in Northhampton, New York, and earned his bachelor’s degree in modern culture with media concentration at Brown University. He was an AMIGOS participant in Ecuador in 1995 and returned on Project Staff in 1998 in the Dominican Republic. During his senior year at Brown University, Zimbalist undertook an ambitious project for AMIGOS to capture footage in five countries for a promotional film. Since then, he has done several documentaries in Latin America and is known for his work that empowers marginalized communities in developing areas.

​AMIGOS: What did you learn from your AMIGOS experience?

Zimbalist: I am going to repeat the things most alumni say. AMIGOS gives you a ton of confidence and a lot of faith that it is possible to connect with people that are so different culturally. Another benefit is that through my work in those communities with AMIGOS, I learned to use self-representation as a tool for empowerment.

AMIGOS: What did you learn from working on the AMIGOS film project?

Zimbalist: A lot of documentaries have footage with a “voice of God” narrator. I have learned that if you go for emotion and that you can create personal stories and get people to identify with volunteers and staff without getting caught up in organizational rhetoric. The AMIGOS project was the first grant that I ever received. It was a very ambitious project for me as a 21-year-old. The experience helped me build a foundation for my skills and gave me confidence. It was really powerful that AMIGOS believed in me when I was that young-to let me do a five-country video. After that I felt confident enough to propose bigger projects.

I was blown away seeing how his AMIGOS experience has transformed his entire career. Since this interview, about eight years ago, Jeff has continued his accomplished career in filmmaking. He has been directing and producing award winning films that have been released all over the world. It’s wonderful to see how an experience with AMIGOS can change someone’s entire perspective and help carve a path for their future. Jeff Zimbalist definitely deserves the spotlight today, and I look forward to sharing more alumni stories in coming blog posts.


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