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One evening, Bakr joins his fiancé for dinner. As she discusses their wedding plans, she realizes Bakr isn’t eating. When she asked him why, he said, “I’ve decided to become vegan.” In shock, she gets up from her seat and angrily says to Bakr, “you are not a man!” then splashes a cup of water on his face and walks out.
This is a scene from Veganize It, the first Sudanese film to make it to the big screens of the Ajyal Youth Film Festival, which is held annually in Qatar by the Doha Film Institute (DFI). The film festival is organized for young people, showing some of the best family-friendly cinema the world has to offer. This year marks the third edition of Ajyal Youth Film Festival, which welcomed submissions from 36 countries, between 29 November to 5 December 2015.
Veganize It was presented under the popular Made in Qatar programme, which showcased 17 short films, made by Qataris and foreign residents. The short comic narrative portrays the challenges a young Sudanese man called Bakr faces when he decides to become vegan. More specifically, the film depicts how his loved ones react to his life-changing decision.
Through Veganize It, Director Khalid Salim is telling his own story of when he became vegan. Being vegan or veganism is the practice of abstaining from eating and using animal products.“The film is an accumulation of what I’ve been through since I’ve been vegan. It’s been two years now. I faced many challenges especially from the community – especially the Sudanese community,” said Salim. “The Sudanese cuisine is full of meat. Meat is very essential for us. Many times at gatherings with family and friends, I get negative comments like, ‘why are you doing this?’ They don’t accept it. It reached a point where it became very annoying.”
Standing by Salim is Eiman Merghani, Assistant Director and Art Director, of Veganize It. She recently graduated from the University of Nottingham in Malaysia with a bachelor’s degree in communications and film studies. Salim is currently in his final year of studying software engineering in Malaysia. The two met at the Doha Film Institute workshop of Short Narrative Film Lab organized by DFI, which aims to gather 18 filmmakers from Qatar and make five short films. “When we were there, everyone had to pitch their own idea. For the first two weeks, everyone developed their idea but in the end, five projects were chosen and Khalid’s idea was one of them,” explains Merghani. “They asked everybody who is interested in what. I was interested in Khalid’s film and interested in working as an Assistant Director so that’s how we came together.”
Veganize It is the first film for both Salim and Merghani. In fact, it was the first film for many of those who were involved in the film including leading actor Mohanad Masoud. Through the two-month workshop, which began on 28 September 2015, Salim and Merghani received guidance from film experts such as Ahmed Abdallah, Nadine Salib, Hisham Sakr and Amjad Abuela.
Salim and Merghani were the only two Sudanese filmmakers in the group. “When we first started with this project, it was just about us wanting to become filmmakers. And then when we realized more and more that we were actually the only Sudanese people in the group, we felt the pressure of wanting to represent Sudan. We hope that we have represented our culture well and we hope that people enjoy the film,” said Merghani.
The film is entirely Sudanese, everything from the directors and actors to the language of the film. An audience of at least 200 people, representing more than 30 nationalities watched the short Sudanese film. “I think besides the fact that movies are better when they are personal, we chose this because it is a personal film. It’s about Khalid. It’s about his life; we realized it makes more sense for the film to be Sudanese in every sense of the word. It touches up on so much of the culture of Sudan and its cuisine so it made sense,” explained Merghani. Celebrity actors such as Saudi actor, Yousef Al-Jarrah, and Kuwaiti actor, Muna Shaddad, were guests at the Made in Qatar programme, and told Salim and Merghani that they were happy to finally see Sudanese talent being represented at an event like Ajyal Youth Film Festival.
Initially, the film wasn’t meant to be specifically Sudanese. “When I first wrote the script, it was something global. The characters can be form Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia or anywhere because being vegan is international. So at first, for me, it wasn’t a big deal if the characters are Sudanese or not but then I looked back into our Sudanese culture, I had to get some reference,” noted Salim. When writing the script, Salim was selective with the Sudanese words and terms for the film. “I tried my best to make it as simple as possible. We don’t speak a different language, it is the Arabic language but our dialect is a little different; it might not be easily understood,” said Salim.
Using the power of spreading a message through film, Salim hopes Veganize It will spread awareness about veganism and accepting those who choose to be vegan. “My film is about accepting each other whatever you are. It’s about acceptance, wherever you are, whatever you feel like doing,” Salim reiterates. “I also want to spread the word veganism in the world. I feel like veganism is the peaceful approach to life- I want to spread the word veganism as much as I can starting within the Sudanese community.”
Merghani believes the film is about more than just acceptance. “It’s about tolerance because it’s something we live with everyday in our lives especially in the Arab world where tolerance is still an issue so it’s just painting a picture of tolerance and trying to mirror our society. It’s about both acceptance and tolerance in society,” Merghani affirms.
Veganize It will also make it to French screens at the Clermont Ferrand 38th International Short Film Festival in February 2016. Salim and Merghani hope their film will be screened in film festivals around the world. Most importantly, they hope their film will meet the eyes of audiences in their motherland, Sudan. “It would be very important for us to show this film in Sudan. That would be an even greater achievement,” said Merghani. She and Salim are still waiting to hear whether they’ll have the opportunity to show their film at the Sudan Independent Film Festival taking place between January 21 and 27, 2016.