“Bilal’s Stand” features neither big name celebrities nor the special effects of “Avatar.” What it does have, according to writer and director Sultan Sharrief (who is also director and creator of the EFEX Project at the University), is honesty.

“Bilal’s Stand”

At the Michigan, Sunday at 6 p.m.
Tickets from $12

“The actors aren’t professionals,” Sharrief said. “They’re just kind of playing themselves. … The film is not perfect, but it has perfect imperfections.”

It’s the film’s earnestness and fresh perspective that qualified it for the Sundance Film Festival as part of the NEXT category, a set of low-budget films the Sundance website describes as “proudly modest.”

The film tells the story of Bilal, a teenager from Detroit who balances working at his family’s taxi stand with his dream of going to college. What makes “Bilal’s Stand” so resonant is that it’s firmly based in reality.

As part of the EFEX Project (Encouraging the Filmmaking Experience), one of the film’s goals was to provide students in the Detroit area with “a real experience,” Sharrief said.

“EFEX made (the story) real. High school students are brutal. They’ll tell you if something’s stupid and you’ll take it out and rewrite it. It definitely made the story realistic because of that element,” he added.

In addition to promoting grounded realism, “Bilal’s Stand” seeks to provoke dialogue on controversial topics such as affirmative action.

“I went to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2001, which was during the whole affirmative action period,” Sharrief said. “There were lots of people protesting on the Diag and stuff. People would say ‘Oh, (getting in) was easy for you because you’re black.’ They really just didn’t understand how hard it was to get to this point. I think the film makes it all more accessible for non-blacks. It’s a story that’s very human, so everybody can relate.”

Through “Bilal’s Stand,” Sharrief hopes to illuminate the Muslim experience in Detroit, make it less foreign and bring people together rather than divide them on issues of belief. In addition to tackling religious tensions and racial issues, Sharrief’s film is also relevant in light of today’s economic uncertainty.

“It’s a timely story,” he said, “It’s about going to college and having financial problems. College enrollment was down this year because of the bad economy. It’s also about education — there’s about like an 80 percent drop-out rate now.”

Sharrief sees his movie as a chance to change these problems. He hoped to use Detroit as the setting for a more touching and inspiring story that would uplift the city’s image.

“It’s a way to give back,” he said. “There tends to be a pattern in areas like Detroit where the creative people leave. That’s not the way I wanted to do things. They’re filming a lot of things in Detroit now. Post-apocalyptic movies like ‘Red Dawn’ that use the bad part of the city.”

Overall, Sharrief feels that Sundance has provided him with an amazing opportunity to get his message out.

“It’s been crazy. It’s an emotional maze,” he said. “Most of the time you don’t even know what you’re feeling. I’m just amazed to be here, like, the other day, I met Robert Redford. At the same time, it’s a competition and you’re here to sell your movie so you always have to be working in the back of your mind.”

But getting to this point wasn’t easy.

“The hardest thing was the lack of resources,” Sharrief said. “We found ways around it, but at the same time, it’s hard when your artistic vision can’t be realized all the time. You don’t want to compromise it but you have to. There was one scene, we had to use unpaid extras, and because they were unpaid, it was hard to get people to show up. We had to reshoot because there wasn’t enough people.”

In the end, though, Sharrief feels that he took a lot away from the whole process.

“You have to keep moving forward and know that you will make mistakes,” he said. “There’s this Thomas Edison quote that says, ‘I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.’ I think that sums it all up the best.”

“Bilal’s Stand” will be playing at the Michigan Theater Sunday at 6 p.m. Sharrief will be Skyping in live from Sundance for a question and answer session after the movie.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.