“Hala,” Coming-of-Age Story About a Muslim Teen, Filmed at Northside
by Leon Sommer-Simpson
For the past two weeks, Northside students have shared the building with a host of strangely outfitted, mustachioed film crew workers. They brought professional movie-making equipment of all shapes and sizes, jutting into hallways and catching awe-struck and perplexed glances from students. Trailers and vans filled the lot and directors chairs sat in the stairwell.
“Hala,” a feature length indie project about a muslim teenager is directed by Minhal Baig, a Northside alum from the class of 2008. In the film, Hala learns about herself, western ideas, and her parent’s traditional values. The movie reflects the life of Baig, who, as a teen, struggled with upholding conservative religious traditions while also living and socializing in the vibrant city of Chicago. “Hala” started as a 14 minute short funded on Kickstarter, eventually picked up by Will Smith’s production company Overbrook. Baig said that “The short film was very much a story about a girl and a boy, but the feature is very much about a girl and her family.” Attending Northside and Yale, Baig did not know that she wanted to direct films, just that she wanted to tell stories somehow or another. She fulfilled this need in high school by creating the “Left of the Dial” colloquium, run by Mr. Hennagir, and competed in the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam.
Baig is also the director of the acclaimed short “After Sophie,” and the feature film “1 Night.” “People turn to you because you’re the person who knows your story best, so that has kind of mitigated the impostor syndrome,” said Baig. Returning to Northside for Baig didn’t seem all that odd. To her, not much changed except for the diversity. “I was walking down the halls and felt like, wow, in my year, there weren’t many people wearing the hijab,” she said. Baig described the magic of shooting in Chicago and at Northside rather than in Los Angeles. It allowed them “to put all these pieces of Chicago” into the film; from the fall leaves to the Georgian-style houses to Spinning J, the cafe they shot in. Baig said “I imagined this school when I wrote it. There’s a very specific architecture to this school that’s not readily available elsewhere.”
Northside, unlike many older schools, has the advantage of a modern building which it can rent out to film crews and dance competitions, in order to help combat the faltering CPS budget. Northsiders tend to understand this, and are often filled with pride to see “Chicago Fire” or whichever show using their school as a backdrop. To some Northsiders, there was a sense of angst during this shoot about the displacement from classrooms, the gym, or even entire hallways. For Ms. Doherty, the crew shot in her room and misplaced the stack of essays from her AP Literature block. In the art department, students and teachers alike were upset about art being haphazardly taken down. The general sentiment was that this could have been remedied through better communication so that the teachers could have made adjustments themselves. Overall, however, Northside was very happy to welcome a film with such an important story to tell.