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Missouri professor named new face of independent film

November 23, 2018

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — When Ismaeel Bilal got off a Greyhound bus to move back to his old Columbia neighborhood and live with his parents, his older brother started filming.

That scene is the start of a 13-minute film by MU professor Kamau Bilal who documented his little brother’s unsettling, exasperating, often emotional experience of wedging himself back into the family at age 23.

The film, called “Baby Brother,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Eight months later, Bilal, 35, was named one of the 25 new faces of independent film by Filmmaker Magazine, the Columbia Missourian reported.

The magazine called Bilal’s film an “ambitious short,” and it can be watched online on the Op-Docs page of the New York Times.

Filming lasted a year and a half, with Bilal taking a number of breaks to sort out where the story was going.

“Baby Brother” follows Ismaeel to the front door of his parents’ brick bungalow in Columbia after he arrives in town. Almost immediately, his mother wants him to get a haircut, but he resists.

He tries to help wash dishes and breaks a glass. He mows the lawn like a race car driver and breaks the mower.

“I thought I was done with buying lawnmowers,” his father laments.

He reverts to playing video games and attempts stunts like jumping off the roof.

“I was thinking I had all this time, I’m good,” he says at one point. “I thought I was going to be a teenager forever.”

As Ismaeel watches a wasp trapped in a screen toward the end of the film the symbolism is clear: both are trapped, but with determination, they’ll find a way out.

Ultimately, Ismaeel did find a way out in 2017 after he saved enough money to move to Chicago.

“He was happy that I had made the film about him,” Kamau Bilal said on the impact his film left on his brother. “It was almost therapeutic for him.”

Kamau Bilal was born in Queens, New York, but his family moved to Richardson, Texas, when he was 3. In 1992, they moved again, this time to Columbia.

Growing up, Bilal and his brothers were never forced into specific career paths. He produced skits and videos as a teenager, but he never considered it the start of a career he would pursue later.

“It was just as like a fun thing, you know, to make these little skits or mash-up videos or whatever,” said Bilal.

He does remember his mother encouraging him to find something he was passionate about.

He studied video production at Webster University in St. Louis for three years and spent another four and a half years working for the Columbia-based motion picture company Chimaeric before he was offered a teaching position in the Film Studies Department at MU.

Now in his third year of teaching, Bilal said he has begun to master the challenge of teaching filmmaking to students. This semester, he is teaching both beginning and advanced courses on cinematography.

“When you have to teach, you have to kind of be able to express things in a way for somebody to understand it,” he said. “Which is something I’ve learned a little bit better how to do.”

“I don’t think people say that enough,” he said. “Now that I have kids, I have a really deep understanding of everything they (his parents) sacrifice for you.”

The courage to submit “Baby Brother” to Sundance came during a weeklong residency in September at the Camden International Film Festival.

After submitting other projects without success, Bilal worried about rejection. So he was stunned when he heard back from the folks at Sundance.

“Sundance, I think it was always like a pie in the sky,” he said. “And so when it gets in, you know, you’re not expecting it.”

His next project will be filming his father’s old neighborhood in St. Louis. As a father of three, Bilal hasn’t narrowed his subject yet, but he said he’ll know when he feels it.

“I think once you actually are there and you’re working and making, something will come out of it. I think it’s largely just trying to trust that process,” he said.

The process starts with a detailed outline. He wants to know the characters, their emotional truths, their conflicts and what the scenes should be.

“I want to leave some room, I think, for that sense of discovery within the space,” he said. “I really do feel you feel in filmmaking when the filmmaker sort of discovered something.”

It’s not about making films as a living for Bilal. It’s about telling great stories.

“It’s weird because you’re making films for an audience, but you’re also making films because you need to make films. I still want to see it. I like the art form,” he said.

“If I stopped liking it, I’ll stop making them. I don’t want to leave it hinging on, ‘Oh no an audience won’t see it, so I won’t make it.’”

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Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com

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