When Kamau Bilal was 15, he would spend 8 hours at a time in his room, using a bootleg copy of Adobe Premiere to edit movies he made with his brother. Today, he works as a professional editor and filmmaker and is the newest faculty member in the University of Missouri’s Film Studies program.
In his first semester with the program this fall, Bilal is teaching Introduction to Cinematography and Principles of Post-Production. His experience as former lead editor of the local production company Chimaeric has given him ample experience editing commercial projects. However, throughout his career thus far, Bilal has always striven to cultivate his passion for narrative storytelling.
After his home editing experiments in high school, Bilal earned a bachelor’s in video production from Webster University in St. Louis. During his time in the program, he focused on cutting together narrative films. He edited a friend’s movie for free right after graduating in 2006, and gradually developed experience and connections by doing various freelance projects.
Bilal landed a job at Chimaeric in 2012, where he worked mainly on corporate projects. The TV commercials and promo videos provided plenty of work, but Bilal continued to seek out and edit his friends’ fiction films on the side. “I took those things on because that was the stuff I really wanted to do,” Bilal said. Most recently, he collaborated with local filmmaker and True/False Film Fest co-founder David Wilson to direct, shoot and edit a short documentary called “Crown Candy,” which tells the story of a white-owned, 103-year-old restaurant and candy shop in a mostly black area of St. Louis.
While at Chimaeric, Bilal also began making his own films. On a 2014 trip to visit his wife’s family in Egypt, he noticed a cinematic image of a man sweeping the street outside his hotel window. “As you shoot more and more, you start to develop a sense of what’s ‘a moment,’” Bilal explained. “I was like, ‘This is an interesting moment,’ so I shot it.” He then mixed the street sweeper shot with some footage he filmed of propaganda signs, and created a two-minute video meditation on the Egyptian constitutional vote that was underway. His goal was just to see what he could make. “This is an experimentation process,” he said of his approach to filmmaking.
At the same time, Bilal was also pursuing a longer-term experiment. Over a span of two years while working at Chimaeric, he used his spare time to film Nate Brinkley, a professional football player faced with a career-ending injury. Bilal discovered Brinkley after getting the vague idea to make a film about a football team he discovered through Facebook. The resulting 12-minute short was in the official selection for three different film festivals, and also won Best Documentary at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.
Eventually Bilal began becoming dissatisfied with the time he was spending on his commercial projects at Chimaeric. “That’s great to pay the bills, I guess,” he said, “But the thing was, I just got so caught up in doing it for long periods of time. And I sort of forgot the real reason why I wanted to do it. Which is…telling stories.”
Bilal left Chimaeric to teach at Mizzou this fall, a move he says gives him more time and flexibility to continue to edit other people’s films on a freelance basis, as well as create his own.
Bilal’s current project, on which he has been working for about a year, is a documentary about his 24-year-old brother, who recently moved back in with his parents. He is working at a retirement home while figuring out where to go next in life. The subject might sound mundane to some, but Bilal sees the potential in telling a personal story. He decided to pursue the film after a failed venture documenting a boy in Bangladesh whose village is under threat from poverty, cyclones and attacking Bengal tigers.
“I guess you have this mindset, when you’re about to set out to do a story, like, ‘I need to do something, you know, big, or something that’s like…foreign. There’s an attractiveness to that,” said Bilal. “But then I started to really analyze it, and…yeah, that’s foreign to people—but you know what else is foreign is a 24-year old black man in America,” he explained. “I have something right here that I can do that might be interesting.”
Although Bilal’s brother is black and Muslim (both were raised in an African-American Muslim family), Bilal isn’t trying to push any grand agendas. He is wary of films that present certain races or cultures as one thing in order to advance a blanket message, often glossing over the complexities of human nature in the process. “I want to normalize things,” Bilal said. “So it’s not like…‘Oh, we’re telling a story about a black man.’ Or, ‘We’re telling a story about an Indian.’ Or, ‘We’re telling a story about this guy.’ It shouldn’t even be that. It’s just, ‘We’re telling a story. This guy happens to be black.’ You know what I mean?”
Bilal acknowledges that because racial and cultural differences are so ingrained into American culture, it might be hard for audiences not to read certain interpretations into his films. “I don’t know how you can distance it,” he said. “There’s no reset button. But that’s the goal; it’s just to normalize—so that we’re just telling stories about people. In general.”
When it comes to reflecting on his role as a burgeoning independent filmmaker, Bilal is quick to point out that he’s only starting out. “From my perspective right now,” he said of his current film, “it’s just this learning experiment.” As long as he’s pursuing personal projects that matter to him, and gaining knowledge along the way, Bilal feels he’s headed in the right direction. All of his projects thus far have evolved from a simple curiosity about the world that spurred him to pick up a camera.
“The more you do, the better you’re going to get,” Bilal said. “So you have do it. That’s the only way it works. You can talk about it all day, you know, but…it only works if you go out and do it.”