When he was in his 20s, Qasim Basir was running around Detroit making movies and selling them at local liquor stores.
Now in his 40s, Basir is still running around Detroit making movies, but he's selling them at Sundance instead.
Basir, who grew up in Ann Arbor and Detroit, is headed to this week's Sundance Film Festival with his latest film, the Detroit-shot "To Live and Die and Live." The film premieres Friday at the festival, America's largest showcase for independent film, and will be available to be seen by those not making the trek to Park City, Utah, as part of the festival's online component.
It's Basir's second feature to land at Sundance, after his romance "A Boy. A Girl. A Dream." played the fest in 2018. This time might be just a little bit sweeter, given what he put into the movie and the personal nature of the story, about a filmmaker (played by Amin Joseph of TV's "Snowfall") who returns home to Detroit after the death of his stepfather, which was inspired by Basir's own journey home after the loss of his stepfather five years ago.
"Something had been telling me to write something that scares you, and this was one of those stories," says Basir, 42, on the phone earlier this month as he put the finishing touches on his movie before shipping it off to Sundance. "So I wrote this story and it just kind of poured out of me."
Detroit not only plays a role in the movie, but it's also arguably its star, as Basim captures the vibrancy of the city in a way that hasn't been caught on camera since Michigan's film incentives program dried up in 2015. He shot in and around downtown in summer 2021 as the city rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic and finds a sort of urban oasis that's night and day from how Detroit is typically depicted on film.
"I wanted to shoot Detroit beautiful because no one does that," says Basir, who shot the film himself in addition to writing, directing and producing it. "It's always the blight, the decay, the destruction. So it was like, alright, if I have a chance to photograph this city in a way that no one's done it, that would be kind of cool, as a backdrop to this story."
"To Live and Die and Live" also stars Skye P. Marshall, Omari Hardwick and several of Basir's family members, including his sister, Maryam, and his wife, Samantha. Detroit rapper Big Sean's father, James Anderson — a longtime family friend of Basir's — plays a small role in the film. Family, community and addiction are all themes in the story, playing out against an airy love story between Joseph and Marshall's characters.
Basir, whose 2010 debut film "Mooz-lum" called on his Muslim upbringing and starred Danny Glover and Nia Long, is now back living in Detroit, having moved home from Los Angeles during the pandemic. Hollywood's production stoppage in March 2020 put a hold on several projects he had in development, and coupled with having a young son, a return home made sense.
It was while he was home in 2020 that his mother made him sit down and watch an early movie he made, "Inner Struggle," which he shot in the mid-2000s with his friends and filmed around the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, making things up and figuring them out as he went along.
The film carries the tagline "the must-see independent film!" — a quote Basir himself made up as a marketing tool. He used it to sell the movie at local liquor stores, giving store owners a cut of the profits in exchange for counter space.
Basir had no interest in revisiting "Inner Struggle," but his mom insisted, and watching it helped realign his perspectives and get him out of his temporary career funk.
"It was probably one of the most important things that could have happened to me," says Basir, known to family and friends as "Q." "More than anything, it was a reminder of, man, the audacity of y'all to go and do that. Who was doing that around here then? No one! It was before the incentives, it was before all of that.
"So watching it did a lot for me," he says. "It was like, you know what? You don't have to wait on these studios. You know how to do this. You know how to go and make a thing, so maybe you should do that."
It wasn't easy. Basir — his first name is pronounced like "Koss-im" — says "To Live and Die and Live" was the most challenging film he's ever made, due in no small part to the birth of his second child during production. Most of the movie takes place at night, so shoots would start around 7 p.m. and stretch until 4 or 5 in the morning. And there were COVID logistics and other hurdles that come with making an independent film.
But he soldiered on, raising money from local investors and hoping for a return to Sundance on the back end.
Basir wrapped "To Live and Die and Live" in late summer 2021 and submitted the film for Sundance '22, but it was rejected. It was the shakeup he needed, he says.
He retooled the film, cut 45 minutes and submitted it again, and this time he got in. At Friday's premiere, the "To Live and Die and Live" section will be about 100 people strong, he estimates. "It's going to be crazy," the filmmaker says.
Basir, who played football at Wayne State and was named to the all-conference first team in 2002, grew up loving movies. As a teen, he connected with two films in particular that made him switch from enjoying movies to wanting to make them: Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" and Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." When his football career ended — he had a tryout for the Detroit Lions but didn't make the team — he followed his heart into filmmaking.
It's his heart that leads him, says Rochelle Riley, who has known Basir for more than a decade and who is one of the executive producers of "To Live and Die and Live."
"There are filmmakers who make films to make money, there are filmmakers who make films to win awards, I think Q makes films because his heart tells him to," says Riley, a former columnist at the Detroit Free Press who is now the city of Detroit’s director of arts and culture. "He puts his entire soul into them. It's not just one piece of something that is important, every element is important, and in this movie, his home is important. And the fact that he came home to Detroit to do it, and to have his child during the making of it, every single part it was like, home has got you. We're going to make this film no matter what."
Basim left for Sundance on Wednesday. At the festival, his top priority is to sell "To Live and Die and Live" to a distributor — "A Boy. A Girl. A Dream." landed at Samuel Goldwyn Films — and then he can relax a little, and see what's next in store for him, career-wise. A local premiere of the movie, he says, "won't be too far in the future."
His journey with the film has given him new grounding and has reaffirmed his bond with Detroit.
"It was just a matter of going back to my roots and getting creative with it," he says, as Sundance beckons.
How to watch Sundance online
The Sundance Film Festival has tickets available for online screenings of festival films for $20 apiece. Screenings run Jan. 24-29. For information, visit festival.sundance.org.
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