On a Wednesday morning in Utah, a young filmmaker has trouble ordering breakfast. Not that he can’t decide what to pick from the menu.
The problem is a lack of choices: Sultan Sharrief is getting strange looks from the waitress who’s not used to customers who don’t eat pork.
In a way, the scene is a metaphor for Sharrief’s life. He’s walked the culturally challenging journey of being a Black, American-born Muslim. His first feature movie, Bilal’s Stand, is getting positive audience buzz this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Sharrief wrote and directed the film based on his own experiences.
“I wasn’t sure if a bunch of all-White students in Utah would be able to identify with an urban film set in Detroit,” Sharrief, 26, says of a recent screening for high school youths at Sundance. “But it was amazing, because they got it. They asked questions I had never heard before, and we connected.”
At least 1,600 more students this week are expected to view Bilal’s Stand, which follows the main character’s path as the driver in a family-owned taxi business who faces the decision of whether to follow his dream of going to college. There are also general audience screenings for Sundance guests on Friday and Saturday.
Bilal’s Stand took four years for Sharrief to complete, beginning when he was a student at the University of Michigan. It beat out thousands of competing entries to reach the prestigious festival, again, largely reflecting the film’s message about the importance of pursuing goals.
“It really is meant to address the issue of urban flight, what they call ‘brain drain,’ especially there in Michigan,” he adds. “A lot of people get caught up in just getting by, despite having a lot of bills and, sometimes, family members in and out of jail, and still thinking, ‘OK, we’re getting by.’ But no, you’re not getting by, because as soon as something happens, you’re sinking again.”
Especially timely is the film’s profile of a young, Black man raised in a traditional Muslim family, yet living in the midst of everyday pressures from peers and larger society. Played by Julian Gant, Bilal is close in age to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the Nigerian Muslim facing federal charges for trying to blow himself up on an American plane last month. Not unlike Abdul Mutallab, who occasionally expressed feeling alienated in Facebook posts, Bilal struggles for acceptance.
Sharrief recalls growing up with Black kids who made fun of his name, while meeting Muslim youth from places like Pakistan, who couldn’t relate to his American upbringing. “Then you go to the university where you gotta wear two hats: You’re the Black guy and the Muslim dude.”
“I think the film allows people to experience what it’s like to be in the Black community and to be in the Muslim community in ways that they never have before,” he adds.
Having settled on eggs for his meal after stumping the waitress with a tofu request, Sharrief and his assistant ponder how they’ll enlighten new audiences. Bilal’s Stand has also been invited to festivals in L.A. and Berlin, but resources are limited.
“I’m living the dream. It just needs to come with more money,” laughs Sharrief.