Q&A with Sultan Sharrief on Bilal's Stand, Persistence and Independent Filmmaking

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  • Q&A with Sultan Sharrief on Bilal's Stand, Persistence and Independent Filmmaking

    Exclusive Q&A with Sultan Sharrief


    Independent filmmaker Sultan Sharrief, whose debut feature-length film Bilal's Stand premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, discusses various aspects of the process of making an independent film.


    By Camille Haimet, Contributing Writer, StudentFilmmakers Magazine


    SultanS-Forum


    There seems to be a recurring theme or motif in your films dealing with conflicts faced by young Muslim Americans. Why is this subject of particular importance to you?


    Sultan Sharrief: I think I just fell into the pattern of most first time filmmakers. Making the leap to do a feature film is a three year commitment (5 in some cases). So I just told a story that was personal and important for me. My experiences had never been reflected in anything I saw and in a way I felt like the world didn't know people like me existed. So I felt that story deserved, or rather NEEDED, to be told. That first feature is like an animal inside you and, as soon as you open the door to storytelling, it fights it's way out. Bilal's Stand was that for me and Moozlum, which I helped produce, was that for my good friend Qasim Basir. We had similar experiences so the films reflect our upbringing and the journey of finding our identity (after years of juggling multiple ones).


    Your feature film Bilal's Stand is said to based on a true story. Is any of it autobiographical?


    Sultan Sharrief: It's semi-autobiographical. I took my own story and combined it with my cousin (Bilal) and formed one narrative. It's probably 70% me and 30% him. Though we did grow up a block away from each other and went to the same school (and we're 25 days apart) so there's a ton of overlap.


    What interested and compelled you to bring this story to life through film?


    Sultan Sharrief: It was really this constant feeling of being misunderstood. As a second generation African American Sunni Muslim who went to predominantly white schools growing up, you learn to fit in everywhere but you don't fully fit in anywhere. You grow up with three identities - American, Muslim, Black - that can sometimes seem at odds with each other. I also resented the way that most film showed inner city areas like Detroit. I did a research project and found that 16-18 of the films set in Detroit over a 30 year period involved someone with a gun chasing someone else. The same was true for South Central LA, Harlem, and many other areas. I felt that there were much bigger battles fought every day but no one ever showcased them. So Bilal's Stand was my way of doing that--of giving voice to a different kind of struggle.


    What were the challenges of being the writer, director, producer, and editor simultaneously?


    Sultan Sharrief: There aren't enough hours in a day to effectively answer this question. To sum it up it was probably remaining objective and making sure to include others’ feedback. I made the film as part of a unique program in which we partnered high school students with college students, and they workshopped many scenes of the film. This gave unique insight into how people viewed the story. We also had several other producers so the weight wasn't all on my shoulders. I became the (final) editor by default after going through three other editors and multiple versions of the film. I kept working on it for 3 years before picture was locked (which included 3 rounds of reshoots and adding hand drawn animation). Any flaws that still remain are definitely my fault.


    What were the advantages?


    Sultan Sharrief: I was able to explore my own creativity in an unhampered way. I always considered the feedback of the other producers, actors, DP, and other editors but at the end of the day, the decisions were mine. It helps to fortify one's decision-making process, and the film becomes a reflection of that process.


    Being that your work is independent, what are some of the challenges of getting sufficient funds for your productions? Is it a matter of dealing with what you'reable to amass?


    Sultan Sharrief: Right now doing independent dramas are the toughest thing to get support for in the industry. Most support for independent material goes towards sex comedies or genre films (horrors, thrillers). So there’s always the challenge of finding the right balance between the amount of time committed to developing a project and then using whatever you have to get the job done. For Bilal's Stand I felt that if I didn't make that film then, I would never make it so I just went for it. For other projects, including Moozlum and my new film, it was wiser to wait until we had the necessary resources and connections to talent before jumping into production. The biggest challenge is access--access to the right people with the right resources, or getting access to talent to build out a project. It becomes a catch-22 of needing actors to get financing and financing to get actors. So you work it from the middle for as long as you can but at some point you just jump into the project.


    What incited you to submit Bilal's Stand to the Sundance Film Festival?


    Sultan Sharrief: I always knew I wanted to go to Sundance. It was my first directorial feature and Sundance is arguably the most prestigious film festival in the country. I knew that the exposure and respect one gets from being in Sundance will pave the way for other projects. So we waited three years until the film was the best it could possibly be then submitted.


    If you could share your top three tips, best practices, or insights related to independent filmmaking, what would they be?


    Sultan Sharrief: (1) Make sure the story works. A lot of people put the focus on what they want say and not on what people would be interested in hearing/seeing. Most of the time those aren't the same thing. Do research, look at themes that are trending, or find something you know/trust has an audience then engage that audience with your work and see if it resonates. It doesn't have to be a guessing game.


    (2) Measure twice, cut once. It's an old carpenter's adage but it's relevant for film. Plan then plan, then plan some more. Once you start, it will all be out of your control so the more planning you do at the start, the better prepared you'll be to deal with Murphy's Law--that anything that can go wrong, will. I plan for the opposite, that anything that can go right, will.


    (3) Have faith and never give up. It's cliché but true. I have so many friends who talk about the films they'd like to make or the projects that didn't work. No plan works the first time but if you refuse to give up and keep readjusting, eventually you find the right way forward. Persistence is a measure of one's faith in his/her ability to accomplish a goal.


  • #2
    I love this, Sultan says, "That first feature is like an animal inside you and, as soon as you open the door to storytelling, it fights it's way out."
    Also Sign up for Global Filmmakers Network!
    https://networking.studentfilmmakers.com

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