Documentaries in the Spotlight
Kamau Bilal, an assistant professor in the MU Film Studies Program, has been on a roll lately. Crown Candy, a film Bilal made with David Wilson of Columbia’s True/False Film Festival, won the award for “best short documentary” at the St. Louis International Film Festival late last year. Last week, Bilal’s latest documentary, Baby Brother, was one of just 17 short documentaries being juried at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film is about Bilal’s younger brother Ismaeel, who had been living in Indianapolis and moved back in with his parents in Columbia.
“It was just his personality that drew me to the project,” Bilal says. “His moving back in with our parents was just the container I put the film in. It’s a difficult thing to navigate when you are filming someone for a year who you are close to, and it had to be strange for him because he’s trying to figure out what he’s doing with his life, and I’m there following him around with my camera.” Bilal says he tried to make his brother feel as though he was part of the process rather than the main subject by talking about the film and the motivation behind it.
“Mostly, I tried to make a piece of art—I didn’t go in with any preconceived notions,” Bilal says. “There are a lot of things I could have focused on—he’s African American, he’s Muslim, and a millennial, but I did not want those things to be the focus of the film. Really, it’s an experience of me trying to engage with cinema and the art form, and what are the things that I can do while I’m in this 13-minute sandbox?”
No Art without Transformation
Bilal says he looks for simple things and for ways he can transform those simple things into something he can look at differently. Crown Candy, for example, is a portrait of the beloved 100-year-old candy store and lunch counter in North St. Louis. At the same time, Bilal says the story gave him and co-director David Wilson an opportunity to explore some of the issues that arose from the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015.
Bilal says he usually has some ideas of what a film might be while shooting, but “it becomes cinema once you start putting it together.” Whenever he is shooting film, Bilal says he dwells on a favorite quote from French filmmaker Robert Bresson, “There is no art without transformation.”
“It means I need to think about what I am actually doing,” Bilal says. “Why am I bringing these things together?”
So what does Ismaeel think about what his older brother has done?
“When he watches Baby Brother he laughs,” Bilal says. “He showed it to my parents when I wasn’t there, and he said they loved it.”
Robert Greene, the filmmaker-in-chief at MU’s Murray Center for Documentary Film, also is on a roll, having made his fifth appearance at Sundance in five years as either an editor or a filmmaker. Greene’s submission to Sundance this year focused on the forced deportation of 1,200 people from Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917. Bisbee was founded as a copper-, gold-, and silver-mining town in 1902 and grew to just over 9,000 residents in a decade. In 1917, open-pit mining was introduced to help meet the demand for copper during World War I. That same year, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tried to organize laborers to demand better working conditions and wages. In response, the Phelps Dodge Corporation, using private police, rounded up 1,200 people at gunpoint, put them on cattle cars, and shipped them 10–12 hours from Bisbee into New Mexico and then dropped them in the middle of the desert. Greene first heard of the story while visiting his future wife in Bisbee.
“The town is really an amazing place,” Greene says. “It’s the kind of place where you feel the ghosts when you walk down the streets, like New Orleans. I fell in love with the place and then immediately heard about the Bisbee deportation.”
Exploring Their Own History
Greene says that visit in 2003 was many years before he made his first feature film, but he already was thinking about how he might reenact the deportation using local residents. He remained obsessed with the idea and checked every year to see if anyone else had made a film about the incident. Then in 2016 he realized the 100th anniversary of the deportation was approaching and called his producers and told them they needed to make the movie now.
“It was a crazy thing to try to pull off, and the hardest thing was understanding the town and trying to find ways to collaborate with the locals because the film really needed to be from them,” Greene says. He says they found a woman named Sue Ray whose grandfather deported his own brother, and Ray’s sons do the re-enactment of that scene. Another participant, now the head of maintenance for the local school system, had family on both sides of the deportation. People from the mining interests are represented as well (calling the deportation an act of saving the town and supporting the war effort), and Greene says the town is chock-full of amateur historians willing to share their stories.
“What you find in the film is the excitement of people to be able to explore their own history,” Greene says. “Our main character is Fernando, who describes himself as not a political person, but then he gets involved in this and becomes more aware through the process of playing a role in our film.”
Greene says Bisbee ’17 is a collaborative effort in many ways, from the local residents who participated in the film to the funding he received from Mizzou Advantage, the Murray Center for Documentary Film, and the Film Studies Program, to the students who worked on the project.
“Much of the crew was students, so throughout the process there were seven to eight students working on the film,” Greene says. “We also use the footage we shot for classroom assignments and discussions in my film studies class, so it’s fully integrated.”
The Sundance Film Festival ran from Jan. 18–28. For a list of the festival’s 2018 awards, visit this page: http://www.sundance.org/blogs/news/2018-film-festival-awards#/.