Sonoma Valley High’s Michael Abela
Catching Up With a Grad:
Mike Abela started a documentary about motorbikes in Saigon.
The road from Sonoma’s skatepark to the poorest villages of Sierra Leone might not be a straight line, but the path was a clear one for Sonoma Valley High School graduate Mike Abela, ’06.
Growing up, Abela loved nothing more than to film his friends doing crazy stunts on their skateboards. He signed up for the very first year of Peter Hansen’s video production class at the high school in 2002, and re-enrolled every year thereafter. “Peter Hansen told me over and over that a career in film was at my fingertips if I continued with my passion and worked hard – something students of this age need to know. The video facility is a blessing in that it fosters creative minds and gives young people a positive outlet for transforming passion into a career.”
Abela’s best memories are of the high school’s unique social environment. “We were all very connected with each other and inspired by art and music,” he said. “There was a strong creative atmosphere, which was always motivating. Most of my friends were into photography, filmmaking, painting, and music, and these things keep young people driven and inspired to go to school.”
In his senior year, Abela was faced with a decision about college and began questioning the viability of a future in filmmaking. He had his heart set on the Academy of Art in San Francisco and was crushed when his parents instead steered him to Santa Rosa Junior College. But, he says today that, “some of my best teachers were from the JC, and I saved an enormous amount of money.” He ended up transferring from SRJC to San Francisco State University to enroll in its respected film program, which he found to be “a fabulous environment for creativity. I learned that success doesn’t come from the brand of your college, rather it comes from how you use your education.” He graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in film production in 2011.
Abela most enjoyed the intellectual freedom of college. “In high school, you’re mostly limited to what the government dictates you should be studying, but in college you have so many more options. I’m fascinated with culture, anthropology and film, and because college has such a vast array of classes, I was able to combine all of these subjects together. You can study what you truly love.”
Since college, Abela has traveled the globe pursuing his interests and his passion for filmmaking. He spent much of last year in Vietnam teaching English and beginning production on a documentary about Saigon’s unique motorbike culture. “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, filling me with invaluable knowledge of our world and the reality of foreign perspectives.”
Today, Abela is packing to head off to Sierra Leone to begin work on a series of four short documentary films about sustainability in rural villages. He describes the project, Aiding Opportunity, as “telling stories of the local people working towards a brighter future, despite the struggles they face.” He is partnering with the nonprofit Families Without Borders, an organization that provides education, infrastructure and business development to help local villages so that they no longer must rely on outside support.
After Sierra Leone, he will travel to Jamaica to produce a new music video for a Jamaican reggae artist. When he isn’t overseas, he does freelance film work for Bay Area schools, musicians and businesses as well as wedding cinematography and editing for Shakewell Studios. “I’m just getting started in my career, as it’s a very long road, however my ultimate goal is to be working for National Geographic.” Until then, he is doing everything he can to continue to travel, develop his portfolio, make a difference and make enough money to continue to follow his dream.