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I've been trying to figure out this puzzle called college for a while now, and I'm no more sure of what I should be doing now than I was a year ago. Aren’t the college years, like any life era, a time for growth? I don't want to stay in state, though that would put the least strain on my family. I want to defect some place where the people are different, like Washington or Missouri, Southern Virginia or Japan. Is it so wrong to want that for myself? This past week I went to Sundance and saw Bilal's Stand, an indie movie with low productions values. It follows a Black Muslim named Bilal through the latter half of his senior year of high school as he considers going to the University of Michigan. The catch? He’s poor: he and his mother support their extended family through their taxi stand, which makes only a modest living space for the myriad family members that seem to inhabit the movie, who see his pining for mobility as abandonment. They're careless people, smashing up things and retreating to their vast carelessness, letting Bilal clean up their mess. Even though a handful of bad performances mar the experience, there is a genuinely empathetic and familiar core to Bilal's Stand that shines through its trite facade, one I appreciate as both someone caught in the limbo between high school and college, and as someone living in the entertainment landscape of 2010. In an industry where we have forgotten the rooted impasse between man and his human heart, Bilal's Stand is a small lighthouse of hope for aspiring filmmakers. It’s a movie of archetypical characters doing entirely typical things, the mundaneness of which is presumed to be largely foreign to a Sundance audience (what does a ritzy group of indie film enthusiasts know about the hardships of a struggling Black Muslim family?). The movie ends before a conclusion is reached about Bilal entering college, but only after Bilal’s mother concedes reluctant and unconditional support for him. There is love at stake here, things of value to be lost. In this way the film dwells on Bilal’s home life and how his decisions affect them rather than the decisions themselves, and the consequences are always negative. This slight shift in focus is the atoning crux of the film: we don't care whether Bilal actually makes it into college but rather his struggle against himself in admitting that he would leave his family to do it. But it feels like a first time director’s movie. It’s like looking at a picture you really like but feeling unnerved by its frame. What’s on the artist’s canvas is genuine, but the frame is so tacky. The direction feels unfocused at times. About halfway through, Bilal begins ice sculpting in hopes of winning a competition to win some scholarship money, but the sculpting seems to take a seat in the tangential sidelines while the characters focus on the red meat of the movie. Scenes feel didactic and heavy handed with message-style meaning, as though designed by high school students for high school students (there are periodic kernels of good film theory sprinkled in: quick close-ups of Bilal and his family show their imperfect, tired skin while they argue over Bilal’s rationale). Characters are oddly quick to oppose Bilal’s stance. He fluctuates from a mere interest in higher education to eventually full blown lust, and all along the way you’d think at least one major character would support him. It’s not until nearly the end when a friend finally lends some encouragement.

The best thing about Sundance films is that you can expect the director and all his actor friends to show up after the movie, free to qualify and explain away the imperfections of their work. This is entertainment at its finest. “It took us four years to finish this film,“ Sultan Sharrief, the director and writer, told us. “I wanted to keep editing it and editing it until it was exactly what I wanted, but I eventually had to stop,” said Sharrief, grinning in a green scarf, leather jacket and matching hat– all fashionable in equal measure. He stood nervously, as if someone ought to walk up on stage and hand him a glass of water to calm him down. It was, in fact, his first Sundance film. It's from this hotbed of obsessive tweaking that the visual narrations come. Bilal's Stand includes an excessive use of admittedly charming hand-drawn sketches laid right smack on top of the film's substance. Thought it provides for some nice effects (bubbles surrounding character's heads to signal insularity, caricatured divas drawn over girls), the technique feels outdated and mostly gets in the way of the meat of the movie, highlighting the deficiencies of the acting's ability to communicate on its own terms. It’s as if Sharrief were so excited by the prospect of his own creativity being lathered on the silver screen that he lost his direction. He talked about his struggle to beat against the current, working every day without knowing if they'd still be in business the next. Sharrief produced the movie in part through his Effex project, a program that puts high schoolers on the set and soaks them in the dirtier parts of the film industry (which is probably why it doesn’t feel unlike a bloated senior project). It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the film was made as a teaching tool to make us want to pursue a college education. At times I was surprised when the words “GET YOUR BACHELOR'S” did not flash on the screen. In one scene Bilal and his new lady friend discuss why they want to go to college. “People think I can’t do things just because I’m pretty,” she says. “Who said you were pretty?” She scoffs and makes a face like she just won the lottery, gives her best pseudo-valley girl impression, “Whatever!” Though it’s teeth-grinding, it’s a fine example of how annoying teenagers are. We’re rudderless and stupid, and despite all our rage, we are trapped, as was once well put, like a rat in a cage. It was easy to cringe at this exchange mid-scene, but Sultan wasn't a teenager that long ago (25 years old, imagine that); it's a bit of caricature, but we're more like these actors than we'll admit, and who would put a decision like going to college in hands as inexperienced as ours? There is one brilliant scene in the film. After a taxing day juggling between his family and his academics, Bilal and his friends drive down the Valley of Ashes to a party down the street. “The hard part about being me,” Bilal narrates as a white girl begins to grind on him, “is that people are always trying to push me in different directions. Sometimes, it’s like I don’t even make my own decisions.” She lunges into him, pushing him back and forth. The angles are low and the room is dark. We can hardly tell where the morass of gyrating bodies begins and ends. The crowd moves together, like a wave of crotch sloshing back and forth in the humid Detroit dank. It was this moment when I wanted to be there, at the party, dancing and relinquishing myself to the genital congress. Applying for college sucks. I’ve never had a more drawn-out decision in my life, and it's hard to measure the effect it's going to have. College life is depicted as glamorous, the baroque periods of our lives, but I suspect it really isn’t. There is a looming desire to ignore that austere choir in favor of the anonymity amongst the dark mass of undulation. To admit it all will never matter in the grand scheme of things. Sharrief has crudely articulated the terrifying undercurrent of the college application process: every step Bilal takes in securing a college education tears down a little piece of his world. He neglects his best friend when a scholarship opportunity comes up. His cousin ends up in jail while working Bilal’s shift. His teenage sister becomes pregnant. His uncle dies when he goes to blow off some steam. What disturbs me the most about Bilal's Stand is how punished I felt for sympathizing with and cheering for Bilal as he navigated the college waters, as if it were karmically unfit for Bilal to achieve his dreams. I was reminded of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - of Jay Gatsby and the pursuit of his orgastic future: something so tantalizing that felt so within reach but in reality was already so far behind him. It's weird to portray college as that green light, but to me it makes a lot of sense. Assuring our future is selfish, it gets in the way of what other people want despite how noble our intentions are - the addendum that I felt was missing from Fitzgerald's work. Humanity’s selfishness is an innate trait, but we rarely discuss it in those terms. Selfishness is cast as the core pariah of altruism, and the cloaked adversary we must never let inside. But, like all worthy pieces of art, it’s rendered here more honestly as the unfortunate part of us we can never fully do away with. Part of the penance of accepting our humanity is recognizing that at least some part of any decision we ever make is driven by that green light: we will always feel the want to run faster, stretch our arms out farther, until we find ourselves (or our uncle) dead, floating in our proverbial pool one fine morning. The primal hunt for securing our academic future isn’t free of that. College is no orgastic future, but it's rarely served on a silver platter (if it was to you, then please, stop reading). I really sympathize with the portrayal of the college journey as some sort of reverse hedonistic pleasure, something we want for all the right reasons but seemingly eludes us. In the moment of our purview it's an academic calamity that weighs us down so long before we can even bear it, and only once we overcome it does it lose its significance. My college journey is almost over. I'm nearing that time when I must pull the trigger and make the decision of what I want to do. I find watching someone go through nearly the same experience. It expands my understanding of the process, and even if the portrayal feels forced or over the top at times, isn't that the essence of art? Energy spent exploring the human condition is time well spent, and I promise we're still human at 18.


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