Here’s a post from our friend Sultan about his filmmaking work with young people in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Encouraging the Filmmaking EXperience
The EFEX project is a community outreach effort that brings together University students with middle and high-school students from metro-Detroit, engaging them in the production of film projects. Please see below for more information on the pilot project and visit our website: www.studentefex.net. (The website includes a short two-part video documentary which you can access by clicking on the “visitors” tab, then by clicking on the links to the documentary at the top of the screen.) The project focuses on combining filmmaking with service learning and community engagement. It serves as a new model for interaction between academic units and their surrounding artistic communities in an attempt to provide pathways for access to underrepresented communities to the University of Michigan.
www.studentefex.net: The Creation
I’ll never forget the instant in which I was struck with the idea and motivation for the EFEX project. It wasn’t necessarily that the idea was about that one instant but rather the fact that this particular moment served as the straw upon the weary camel’s back; it was a tipping point if you will. But I’ll back up a bit…
It was the summer of 2005 and the shoot for the feature film The Spiral Project had been going exceptionally well. Despite the fact that none of the 30 or so students working with me had ever worked on a feature film before, we all understood that in was in everyone’s best interest to do the best job that we could and to be as professional as possible. No one was getting paid, but we all wanted hands on experience and this film was the perfect opportunity to get that. We were shooting for a minimum of twelve hours a day so, after a while, things started to feel a bit like a film summer camp. I have to admit, there were days on set where I would just sit back and watch people working and interacting and felt a sense of pride in our accomplishment. I felt that, regardless of the success of this film, what we were doing had quality to it and it was a process that should definitely be repeated.
However the shoot was not without some lapses in professionalism; particularly when it came to pride in the Detroit Pistons. Now I love the Pistons as much as the next Detroit native, but making a schedule for a feature film with un paid actors (some of whom were taking classes and/or didn’t have a car or a cell phone) was probably the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life. I was scheduling around people’s jobs, parents’ vehicle schedules, travel times, classes, location availability and much more. Yet several crew members came close to all out refusing to work if we were working during the Pistons games (who were in the NBA semi finals then finals with a chance to win a 2nd national title). So on top of everything else, I tried to schedule around the games or at least make sure there was a TV on set.
About 2 weeks later we got to the section of our script entitled “EXT SLUMS NIGHT” which, due to rules of standard stereotyping, was shot in Detroit. The location scouts had found a great looking abandoned building on the East side of Detroit and we were planning on shooting all night from sun down to sun up. One problem though; several crew members refused to stay out on the street all night in Detroit with a truck full of expensive equipment. Everyone quickly came out with horror stories of what happened to someone they knew, or so and so’s car was stolen, etc, etc. Now I’m not saying Detroit doesn’t have its share of crime, however, these were the same people that two weeks earlier were showing up to set with Ben Wallace afro’s and running off as soon as they heard “Cut” to check the status of the game. I had gone to elementary school about five blocks away from the location so I couldn’t really understand their reluctance and eventually a two day fight soon broke out. In the end we only took five crew members and 1 actor to the set.
When you shoot “night” over the summer the shoots typically range from 7p.m. to 7a.m. We had a dusk shot or “magic hour” shot so we got there at 6p.m. to give us enough time to set up our dolly. So imagine the first thing I see when I pull up outside this huge abandoned building: seven or eight little kids from three years old to twelve playing in their swim suits in the water from a fire hydrant. I was shocked. As a black kid growing up I always scoffed whenever I saw the black kids playing in the fire hydrant in movies. I would say to myself, “Are you for real?! They trippin’. Nobody actually does that”. And until this day I had never actually seen kids playing in the water from a fire hydrant. But here they were, in their little swim suits having a good ole time. Out of pure shock I just began to laugh. The more I reflected on the situation, the more surreal and amusing it became and the more I would laugh.
That was the moment, but it represented so much more than that moment. We were a group of University of Michigan students, trying to be professional, saying Detroit this and Detroit that left and right, but simultaneously looking at Detroit from a distance as this generically “slummy” area. That moment triggered so many other childhood memories of getting upset at how Detroit always got portrayed in every movie I saw. Robo-cop, Beverly Hills Cop, Precinct 13; if it had Detroit in it, somebody was getting robbed, or shot, or selling drugs, or doing drugs, or stealing something. I remembered being a kid and wondering where all this crime happened because we were in Detroit everyday and didn’t see it. Who would tell the story of what these kids did see? Didn’t they have families, and hopes and dreams? Didn’t they live and love and hate just like we did? I found myself shifting from being one of the crew members to being one of those kids. Who would tell our story and how would it get told? Would we get a say in it, would we get to participate in it, or would you just use us and walk away?
It all amounted to one answer: I had to do something and I had to do it now. If not for anything else, to right the wrong I was contributing to by conforming to the stereotypical mode of filmmaking with its stereotypical representations. Thus EFEX was born.