Sultan Sharrief is currently in Boston and doing work in the Comparative Media Studies program, connected to the MIT Media Lab. He also won a Knight Grant to build a curriculum to bring communities together and create restorative justice plans, which he’s working on with Allied Media Projects in Detroit. On the Board of the Michigan Theater, he was in town for the Grand Reopening of The State Theatre. The feature film he produced, “Destined,” which opened there, was shot in Detroit and Ann Arbor. Sharrief also works with interns at the University of Michigan on various behind-the-scenes elements of his “Street Cred” show. Current spoke with him about his projects, experiences, and goals.
You are kind of the epitome of Sustainable Enterprise in Filmmaking.
Yes, well, a lot of my work is focused on, “How can we challenge the mainstream media?” If we don’t have the resources to do some giant project, how can we figure out different ways to design filmmaking and media-making processes that have the legs to go national? And so we’ve developed a big focus on providing voice for those who are underrepresented, primarily people of color and people of lower income who don’t have a voice in mainstream media-making.
How has Ann Arbor shaped you as an artist and citizen?
I grew up in Inkster and never did anything creative. Never had one art class, never took lessons on an instrument, never learned to paint when I was younger. I always wanted to do those things, but my family never had the means. I have eight siblings, so my parent’s answer to,“Oh, there’s a new club I’d like to join… there’s a new this…” was always: “No, we can’t afford it. If one of you takes art, you all will want to take art. So, no, we can’t afford it.”
I came to the University of Michigan in 2001. All my career started in Ann Arbor. I shot my first feature film during my senior year of college as a film student at U of M and we basically created a summer film camp— because a bunch of us would get these menial internships and I asked, “Why don’t we all just stay here and shoot our own movies?” So we did that in 2005.
I was also an intern for the Ann Arbor Film Festival under Vicki Honeyman. That’s really where it started. Vicki would drag me around with her to events and so I became introduced to Old School Culture of Ann Arbor that a lot of students don’t get exposed to… like Mark Tucker and I would run the stage show productions of The Burns Park Players… I’m a freshman in college. I met Jerry Rosenburg over there then at the Michigan Theater I started the University of Michigan ice-carving team my freshman year. Sophomore year, we did the Main Street Ann Arbor Ice Carving Festival – we got sponsorship from Gratzi’s and ChopHouse. Mind you, I’m 18, because I got into college early, and I’m organizing with the city, getting city permits, and getting blocks of ice delivered all over Main Street and I ran that for the next four years. Getting to Ann Arbor was the first time I was able to access these things that I had only dreamed about growing up.
What would you say to people who feel like they are already “too old” to take up things, and think that they have no chance in pursuing a new interest?
Meet new people. Get a new network. A lot of what I focus on working with youth isn’t just teaching them new film skills, but also teaching them new communication skills. A lot of the reasons I resonated with a lot of people was they were not used to this young Black kid from Inkster strutting into the Ann Arbor Film Festival office and barking my ideas around. I tell kids it isn’t just about what you can do, but also about relationships. You need to expose yourself to different things.
Another thing is accessing resources. When you grow up lower income or under-privileged, you’re taught you can’t access what you don’t have. I learned at the University of Michigan about these programs that were free and would even provide transportation and scholarships for sleep-away art camps—but no one was ever telling us about those things. When we were growing up in Inkster, nobody handed us a flier or reached out and said, “Hey, if you like film, here’s a summer film camp – and they provide scholarships for that.”
A lot of my work is getting people to realize it’s on you to go out and look for those things.
What’s coming up that you’re excited about?
Cinetopia this year. Last year was a turning point for us in terms of really having a film festival feel. Now we’re going to have seven screens with the State Theatre open, so it’s going to enable us to expand our programming. I’ll still be curating the Detroit Voices section. I’ve been really focused on building the filmmaking community in Metro Detroit. We host a filmmaker brunch and I want to continue building that. I’m trying to focus on building networks so the call I have with Sundance is about building the Detroit filmmaking community. Cinetopia is still very much a part of that.