USF Students Aim To Tell Muslim History In TV Pilot

A group of University of South Florida students spent two weeks last summer riding horses in central Florida, many with real swords strapped to their belts. This summer, they plan to reprise these roles in the Middle East. 

Ahmad Saadaldin is a Public Relations student at the University of South Florida who plans to graduate in May. He is also the director of the forthcoming pilot episode of "Salahadin,'' a historically set TV show about the Muslin leader of the same name. The pilot was made possible by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign.

Saadaldin points to American stereotypes about Muslim culture as a motivating factor for highlighting the historical figure in a docudrama that would follow Salahadin's younger years and ascension to power.

"If there is anything about Muslims on TV, it always perpetuates stereotypes,'' says Saadaldin. "We have a great history, a great culture, and I think there is a lot to be learned about Salahadin. We thought it would be cool to create a dramatic, interesting television series that focuses on his younger life.''

The Internet agreed. The Salahadin Project aimed to raise $80,000 to film a pilot episode through a 45-day Kickstarter campaign when it launched last August; all told, $84,107 was pledged -- and funded -- by the time donations closed in October 2013.

"Obviously we were really excited about that, we worked really hard!'' says Saadaldin. 

Source Material

Fadi Kayali, Omar Kazzoun, (USF students majoring in Finance and Public Relations, respectively), Saadaldin, and other friends have dabbled in video production in the past, but nowhere near the extent of the Salahadin project They weren't truly inspired until something on television caught their attention: "The Vikings,'' a History Channel show about a legendary Viking leader.

"We figured, 'Wouldn't it be cool if there was a show about a Muslim leader who really accomplished something great?' Saadaldin explains. "Instantly we thought about Salahadin Ayoubi, the 12th century Muslim leader that liberated Jerusalem, famous for his struggle with Richard the Lionheart.''

Through telling Salahadin's story, the students hope to illustrate some of the similarities – and differences -- between the Middle East of ancient times and today.

"It's our hope that we can bridge the gap between the East and the West,'' he says. "A lack of knowledge and understanding can really lead to dangerous situations. I think there's a lot of Islam phobia right now in the United States. A lot of people still don't understand what a Muslim is, and there can be fear that comes from that,'' he says. "Something we want to do is to create more understanding. And the best way to do that, I think, is through entertainment.'' 

Enlightening an American audience about the Muslim leader's life and times is important to Saadaldin.

"The goal is to show people the struggles of accomplishing something great,'' says Saadaldin. "The more we read through Salahadin's story, the more we discovered that his life was very intense. We want people to really understand that and connect with that. Nothing is easy.''

Crowd-Sourcing A Trailer

The "Salahadin'' trailer took about two weeks to film and two months edit. It was primarily filmed at Fort de Soto State Park beach and in Ocala, Florida. 

Low production costs have surprised some, Saadaldin says. The Salahadin Project, so far, has relied on volunteers across the board though the team does plan to raise more capital through private donors.

"We paid out of pocket, a couple of community members donated, and we produced the trailer for about $3,500,'' Saadaldin explains. "It was tough filming in Florida because we are depicting the Middle East, which is famously a desert.''

At Fort de Soto, no one knew about the shoot.

"Every time a security truck would drive by, we'd kind of duck into the sands,'' Saadaldin recalls.

In Ocala, the crew filmed -- with permission -- at BG Equestrian Resort.

"Ocala is the horse capital of the world, and they hooked us up with horses and property and said, 'Do whatever you want','' Saadaldin says.

Luckily, he adds, they had Arabian horses.

"We all had to ride horses, and that was crazy,'' Saadaldin reminisces. "Everything kind of came together. We built sets and survived, so that's pretty cool.'' 

A generous member of the local community made costumes for the team after they provided her with measurements and designs.
Once on set, the costumes and swords ended up reading a little 'pirate-y,' so the team had to improvise. Kayali made a turban for the first time in his life.

All actors and film crew for the trailer are USF students. Directing was a team effort with Saadaldin and volunteer cinematographer Nick Armero, at the helm. 

"We act, we do research, we help out with anything we can,'' says Kayali, who plays a soldier and close associate of Salahadin. 

Kayali, a finance major, also manages the project's budget. "Whatever comes in and whatever goes out has to come through me,'' he says, laughing.
Kazzoun, who also portrays a soldier and close friend of Salahadin, pitched in by making fake blood, putting together the soundtrack for the trailer, and sourcing realistic props from budget venues like the flea market, including real machetes the team picked up for $5.

"Making the blood was a team effort,'' Kazzoun laughs.

Local Roots, International Reach

The team edited trailer footage in the general student space at USF's student Marshall Center, which Saadaldin credits as "great for that kind of stuff -- very open and supportive of student organizations.''

Once the trailer was ready, several members of the cast and crew traveled to a handful of U.S. cities to promote their campaign. While they traveled, the trailer reached over 24,000 shares on Facebook and made the Retweet rounds on Twitter.

Along the way, the crew and cast also conducted film workshops for kids.
"We really believe in educating the youth and introducing them to film -- and kids love it. They have a great time with it,'' says Saadaldin.

Because of a successful social media campaign, people all over the country were contacting The Salahadin Project and offering their skills or support. In some instances, they were accepted, like when the team needed a voiceover and a voice actor recorded the lines from Chicago, sending the completed clip back over email.

hitRECord, the crowd-sourcing website run by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, inspired the crew to connect with contributors through social media sources for niche talents or needs.

Plans For The Pilot

The target audience for "Salahadin,'' which will be shot in English, is ages 18-44. The show will be graphic. 

"It was a very dark time, with a lot of violence, and we want to capture that,'' Saadaldin says.

The project is comprised of a cast and crew of about 30 students, with about 10-15 characters onscreen in the pilot. 

"Telling a story -- especially a good one -- is hard, so we're trying to make sure we offer the best pilot episode we can,'' Saadaldin says. "It's hit or miss. You have one chance.''

The project has received a little negative feedback, but it hasn't deterred Saadaldin. "You always have people don't agree with you, but that's the beauty of living in America -- we all have the right to say whatever we want,'' he says.

Saadaldin also is president of Students for Justice in Palestine at USF, a group that has amassed more than 10,200 signatures on a petition that calls for the USF Foundation to divest from corporations doing business in occupied Palestine. The group will present the petition to the USF Foundation at the Board of Trustees meeting in June, Creative Loafing reports.

In Nov. 2013, the SJP group sponsored a game-show style competition called Battle of the Bulls in which student organizations competed to win $1,000 for the charity of their choice. Some of the questions were perceived as racist toward Israel, the USF Oracle reported. The questions focused primarily on Israeli-Palestinian relations as part of the group's efforts to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

A Lot More Work To Do

The team plans to film the "Salahadin'' pilot over the summer 2014. Filming for the pilot could take up to a month in two different countries, although locations have not yet been finalized.

Saadaldin and several other members of the film crew have traveled to the Middle East, UAE United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi to scout filming locations and meet with various potential investors and production companies to pitch the idea.

Some are interested, "but we have a lot more work to do before anything is set in stone,'' says Saadaldin. 

Distribution for the show is not settled, either, with Netflix, Hulu, The History Channel, and other names being floated. 

"For now, our sole focus is on making the pilot. We can always air it ourselves on our own personal website,'' Saadaldin says. 

Saadaldin, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in Baghdad, Iraq before coming to Tampa as a child, where he later attended Tampa Bay Technical High School magnet school. Upon graduation from USF, he plans to pursue the path of filmmaking.

"I love Tampa. … We'll see where this pilot takes us.''

Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who spends her days walking her dog Chloe in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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