LGBTQ film seeks Arab lead for refugee and mermaid love story
'Queer issues are still kind of taboo in Syrian culture,' says Halifax filmmaker
An emerging Nova Scotia filmmaker is creating a queer fantasy romance about a Syrian refugee who ends up falling in love with a mermaid, a short film that's meant to show people can connect even if there are significant cultural barriers.
But Welcome — Ahlan wa Sahlan, which will be shot in Arabic, is facing a cultural stumbling block of its own — finding an actress of Arab background willing to take on the lead role.
"We have few people who are interested in the role because queer issues are still kind of taboo in Syrian culture and there's been some hesitation to audition because they have this concern that people might react," said Nicole Slaunwhite, co-producer and director of the film.
The lead character is Shadia, a Syrian refugee who one morning finds a shell placed on a dock and starts taking an interest in her new home for the first time. More gifts follow, and Shadia leaves her own. She later discovers the gifts are from a mermaid and their friendship soon turns into something more, leading to a kiss underwater.
"Making the movie is partly a way for me to keep learning about other cultures and to hopefully kind of help show that Nova Scotia is a place where everyone should feel welcome," said Slaunwhite.
The mermaid will be played by Raina Norman, owner of entertainment and education company Halifax Mermaids, while Shadia's role is still vacant, with three or four actresses expected to audition next week.
The film's consulting producer is Lina Arafeh, who is a Syrian immigrant herself and a community interpreter with the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia. She translated the script for Welcome — Ahlan wa Sahlan and is working to ensure proper cultural accuracy and sensitivity.
Arafeh has been advertising the role of Shadia on Arab Facebook groups, but said there has been very little response.
"When people spoke to me about the role, all of them expressed that they would love to do it, but they wouldn't dare to either because they were afraid of this church, or the mosque or friends or a husband," said Arafeh, who will play the role of Shadia's aunt.
"To be honest, I'm not very optimistic and if I don't find anyone at the auditions I will not be surprised."
Slaunwhite, however, said she remains confident.
The film is co-written by Slaunwhite and Tim Hanley, and was one of four stories this year chosen to move into pre-production by FILM 5, a program at the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative. It will be shot over the course of a weekend in May.
FILM 5 provided support through classroom instruction, mentorship and gave $8,000 in cash to help with production costs. Slaunwhite is also hoping to raise additional funds on Kickstarter to offer better pay and training for the crew.
The cast is made up of four actors who will be playing the role of aunt, uncle, mermaid and Shadia. They will be paid an honorarium of $100 a day.
As member of the LGBTQ community, Slaunwhite said the challenging search for Shadia has made her "uncomfortable," but she thinks it has been worthwhile.
"There has been people saying that they are uncomfortable with the subject matter and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what that means as a filmmaker," said Slaunwhite.
"I really hope the film doesn't offend or hurt anyone, but I think there's a possibility that it will."
The screening of the film, which will be between seven and 10 minutes long, is expected to be held in Halifax in late August or the fall.