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“What Happens When Making Cinema Stops?”: Kamau Bilal Thinks About Creative Futures

In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor

Based on where my people are, I feel like I’m, at best, one to two generations early in trying to be an indie filmmaker. I feel selfish. Wealth of money (and time) is needed to do this. And Black American wealth is behind (ahem, we know why). It feels like we just got started here, and I forged down this path. Perhaps I should have left it for my children’s children or their children’s children and focused my energies elsewhere. At least, these are the thoughts I’m confronted with in the early blue hour mornings when I can’t fall back asleep after Fajr (a morning prayer). I could just pack all this up and seal it away. Would I be okay with that? But cinema, for me, dives into the mysteries of the metaphysical, humanity, the soul—and asks questions. So, in the spirit of asking questions, what happens when making cinema stops?

I loved making films. But I can’t do it right now. No one can. If you can—I don’t want to hear much about it. This moment in time is one of inward reflection, as much as the world might try and tell you it’s not. No, not literally tell you not to, but by way of feigning normalcy through a series of Zoom meetings or Skype calls or whatever-have-you’s (up to and including poutine home kits delivered to your doorstep). Right as stay-at-home orders were ramping up, Ramadan arrived. To take away is to learn self-restraint (we don’t eat from sunrise to sunset). That is at least one thing, among others, that Ramadan is about. It can actually be relieving if you frame your mind properly. If I opt to translate that to the filmmaking parts of my life, what’s the meaning? Is it in the spirit of gaining wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s something to marvel at.

I imagine that these are the types of circumstances where filmmakers become former filmmakers. Is this my time? It feels like something that is always trying to escape anyway. I hope it’s not, but the question demands reflecting. If this were a “forever situation,” what would I do to fill that hole? I’ve never really wanted to consider that I might stop, or be forced to stop. But that is the question on my mind as of this writing. So, that’s what I’m doing now—pretending I will not make another film ever again. Why? Well, what I’ve realized is I don’t have something to fill that creative void, and that has me shook. I have other parts of my life, thankfully, that are quite full and fulfilling. Do they just spill over into that hole like a syrupy sweet? But that creative energy has to go somewhere. If I am unable to ponder these questions, however difficult—ultimately, that would be against one of the very spirits in which cinema and art exist.

Kamau Bilal is a documentary filmmaker based in St. Louis.

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