The genesis of “Bilal’s Stand,” a low-budget film premiering tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, can be traced back to a single moment several years ago when writer/director Sultan Sharrief was working on his previous film, the acclaimed “The Spiral Project.”

Emily Barton
(Photos courtesy of Beyond Blue)
Emily Barton

“We had this day on set where we were shooting in the slums,” Sharrief said. “So we had to go to Detroit.”

Upon arrival, Sharrief was surprised when he saw several kids playing in the water of an open fire hydrant. The scene was like something out of a typical Hollywood depiction of inner-city life, yet the young director – who himself grew up in a low-income area of Detroit – had never seen anything like it before.

“In that moment I was sort of watching these kids play and I said, ‘Who’s going to tell their story?’,” Sharrief said. “You never see that story. The only one you see is the one that Hollywood people decide to come in and tell. You never hear what those people who live there go through. What is the story of the kids who are playing in the fire hydrant?”

The result of Sharrief’s interest in exploring the lives of inner-city kids, “Bilal’s Stand” tells the story of a high school student and his journey of self-discovery as he fights familial and social strife for a chance to attend the University of Michigan. The film was a very personal project for the filmmaker, who drew on actual experiences growing up in similar locations to those seen in the film. But “Bilal’s Stand” was also personal for Sharrief in other ways. As the initial project for his newly-formed student program Encouraging the Filmmaking Experience film served as a hands-on learning experience where University students and metro-Detroit students came together to work on a film.

According to Sharrief, it was a rich, if occasionally worrisome, five weeks of shooting.

“It was a little bit stressful. Actually, it was really stressful at the time,” he laughed. “But everybody was still really committed . we felt like we were doing something positive, and we felt that it was worth it.”

The “stressful” experience of shooting “Bilal’s Stand” consisted of 15-hour workdays where the filmmakers didn’t even have access to the footage they’d shot.

“It was a very sort of grass-roots, bare-bones experience,” Sharrief said. “There’s a normal level of drama on a film shoot. We probably upped the ante like two-fold, three-fold because we were young people, inexperienced people and people with no money. And eating day-old bagels every day.”

With a cast of mostly non-professional, local actors and a crew consisting of high school and University students from all walks of life, there was bound to be conflict. But Sharrief was quick to note that everyone came together and that, ultimately, the shoot served as a bonding experience for all those involved.

“That’s what the program was about,” Sharrief said. “People were bonding across age groups, across community groups, across socio-economic groups and across racial groups. It was almost like a summer camp kind of experience.”

For Sharrief himself, it was a way to tell a story he’d wanted to share since first seeing those children playing on a street corner. With “Bilal’s Stand,” he hopes to open people’s eyes to the struggles faced by kids from low-income areas when they apply to college.

“I think that experience (of applying to college as a black student) was also devalued because of affirmative action,” he said. “So part of me too wanted to tell that story. I wanted to tell that to all the people who think that it’s easy to get to Michigan, because it’s not, and then too for all the people who are going through similar experiences and let them know that it’s do-able. I combined that with this idea of Detroit always being ‘the slums.’ And I was like, ‘Someone needs to tell this story.’ “

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