Man and Beyond: An Interview with Filmmakers Antonino Barbaro & Albert Sobilo

Catriona Mahmoud interviews Antonino Barbaro and Albert Sobilo, makers of ‘Man and Beyond’, a fascinating documentary that looks at the impact adopting a vegan lifestyle can have, through the eyes of filmmaker Albert Sobilo. Albert’s lifelong chronic illness saw dramatic improvements through adopting veganism, and the film tells the story of how being conscious of your consumption can provide both clarity and wellbeing.

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Why and when did you [Albert] decided to become vegan?

Albert: I was a vegetarian for a long time, I thought it would be too extreme and too difficult to go vegan. I thought, life is too short to deprive yourself of every little thing. What difference can I make if I’m vegan but 7 billion people around the world are still eating meat. Basically I told myself all the bullshit excuses that people use. But then I noticed how being vegetarian helped me health wise compared to other people with similar health situations. My recovery was not something usual, so I treat it like a small miracle that happened. I was vegetarian, but I was a bad vegetarian. I was eating a lot of junk food, I was getting high on the bad stuff. I was being healthy for 15 years then I was like fuck it, I was at a low point, I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, my health got worse and eventually I decided it was enough and that I should try veganism. And that’s it, it’s actually very easy when you have the right motivation, I started because of my health and then also saw the other benefits of it, the environment and animals. I guess everyone has their own motivations but at some point, whatever your initial motivation is, it needs to make sense.

Why did you guys decide to make Man and Beyond?

Antonino: He approached me one day because he knew I was a filmmaker. We started talking about him and his life and how veganism helped him to survive with his disease and I thought that was enough to make a documentary. It would be from the more personal and intimate perspective of him rather than the usual perspective of animal rights and saving the planet.

That’s interesting because it does feel like the film is biography in a way, just the way it focuses on Albert, did you mean for it to be investigative or did it naturally happen like that?

Antonino: When we first put down the idea and wrote the script we thought it would focus more on other people because we wanted to meet vegans and share their stories, plus Albert’s not an actor and wasn’t too comfortable in front of the camera.

Albert: Plus I didn’t feel like we were supposed to talk about my health, I was just meant to be in the background presenting and introducing bigger, more famous and interesting people.

Antonino: From the beginning I thought this wasn’t the right way to go, I was more interested in his story than other people who were vegan. My way of making films is through emotions and feelings, rather than just giving you information. I’d rather make you feel something that you process.

Albert: When we were planning the film we had this grand plan, but no money, so we decided to start a crowdfunding campaign, that’s when the reality check happened.

Antonino: Basically the people we were expecting to support us actually ignored the project.

Albert: We found that most people within the movement, the ones who are big online, they actually do what they do for themselves, it’s not about the animals or the bigger cause, they do it because of vanity, or fame, or the free stuff, so it was disappointing that they weren’t supporting the project. We even considered scrapping it. But then we’d already met a lot of people, who feature in the film, who were from the nicer side of the vegan movement, then we decided to focus a bit more on me. Some people feel that film’s a bit all over the pace, it could have been more about me, or there’s not much footage, but that’s because it was never supposed to be about me, so maybe it feels a bit like patchwork.

  Filmmaker Albert Sobilo.

Filmmaker Albert Sobilo.

I feel like, as a craft, documentary is something that has to be flexible, if you’re documenting stories and an idea, you can’t expect it to go a certain way.

Antonino: By the end when we saw what we had, it wasn’t enough to go with the main idea, so we turned back to my idea which he [Albert] wasn’t really into, but we both found that it was probably the best way to go, and in my opinion it actually works quite fine.

Albert: You have the private intimate thing, and then you have the bigger perspective too.

Antonino: If there was too much focus on him then you would have watched it and thought “yes ok, but I don’t know much about veganism”

Albert: It would have been too narrow, it wouldn't have represented what it is.

I agree, the interviews you had in the film were great but if the whole film was like that then it would have felt like a kind of like a news segment - I think having the personal and the visual aspect makes it more understandable as a concept. If you’re making a vegan documentary, you would want people to consider becoming vegan at the end of the day so I think it’s convincing. Is that something you want from the film? Is it made for people you would like to see convert to veganism?

Antonino: The main reason we did the film was that we wanted to communicate with everyone, not just focus on the vegan or non-vegan communities, but we wanted to breakthrough to each person. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan or not, you might find something that could be useful for you or you might not.

Albert: Yeah, it’s for everyone. Basically I think it says something about our current times and how the perspective of how we eat should change. 25 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to make a film like this, because nobody would want to watch it. I think we’re becoming more aware and conscious in a sense. The film can reach a wider audience because it’s not just about animals, but it hopefully shows that you can impact your life directly. And that’s why most people go vegan, it’s themselves. Even if they say it’s animals, a majority of people have some kind of self-interest, it might be health, or maybe they want to turn it into a career.

Antonino: I had a feeling making this film that most people wanted to say that they are vegan because of the animals, but I felt like plenty of them were vegan because of other reasons, which for me is not a good or bad thing, it’s just a matter of ‘that’s how it is’. And I just wanted to say that we don’t want to turn anyone vegan, that’s not the point, it’s a film about veganism, you watch it and you do whatever you want with it. It’s not like other films out now about veganism -

Albert: Shoves it down your throat, ‘you need to be vegan that’s the only way’. No, it’s not the only way. It would be amazing if everyone could go vegan, but we’re a mixture of our tradition, culture, society and our direct environment.

Antonino: We cannot just ignore everything and pretend that you can start being vegan from scratch.

Albert: Something for me might be obvious, like meat is a dead animal, but for you it might be something else, you might need your time to get to the point where I am now. So, we don’t want to convert anyone is the short answer.

You have the health aspect, which is prominent, but then you also have shots of a protest, and then interviews with people, for example one person you interviewed claimed that  “shock footage doesn’t convert people to veganism” and that really stuck with me, because I feel like a terrible person for not becoming vegan. It’s interesting what you say about how people want it to be about animals, but really it’s probably not about that. So do you think there is a moral dilemma that the film brings forth in a way? Do you hope a vegans will watch it and question their own motives?

Antonino: That would be great if a vegan would question themselves like this. I mean it would be a great achievement. Sometimes you’re not 100% conscious of what’s inside of you, most of the time you think that you’re doing something for one reason, but there’s many others. Maybe the main reason is just a way to convince yourself in a way that won’t be harmful to your psyche.

Albert: Definitely. We want people to question themselves about whether they’re vegan or not, but the most important thing I want people to understand from the film is that everyone has their own journey, there shouldn’t be any judgement that you are worse because you’re not vegan and I’m better because I am. No, you are vegan and then you need to look at other things, how to cut out plastic, how to stop importing avocados from the other side of the world, how to eat more local, the improvement never stops. We’re tangled in so many aspects of our lives that we should be kind without judgement, and support each other and spread the consciousness and the message of improvement in a compassionate way.

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Antonino, you mentioned in the film that you liked veganism but you didn’t like the industry.

Antonino: I don’t only mean the vegan industry but the industries that collaborate with them. An example is growing soy, we all have soy milk instead of dairy, and we think we’re doing good because we’re not hurting cows, and then the dairy industry goes down, but then we need to grow enough soy to satisfy the need. So you have to cut forests, you have to send away the animals that are living in the forest. The industry can never be good because you can never make this ‘good’ food without hurting animals, hurting other parts of the planet, the environment, society the economy, everything. So at the end of the day you just try to make the least damage as possible.

Albert: It’s messed up but I guess the key is to educate yourself, be aware of what’s going on and do the best in any given situation. You’re never going to be perfect but you do what you can with your resources.

Antonino: That’s why I say I agree with this but not with the behaviour of a vegan who comes to me and tells me that they’re doing good just because he’s drinking soy and eating avocados. It’s nice but have you considered what comes with it?

Albert: From an ethical point of view that vegan is doing better than others, but from an environmental point of view he’s not doing as well as person who eats a healthy meal of fish and brown rice. If the vegan is eating a burger made with fried gluten and other saturated bullshit. You need to balance and understand what’s important for you and do the best you can do in any given situation.

It’s interesting how you mention the unhealthy vegan food options that are so readily available now.

Antonino: I think that’s the easiest way of attracting people, if it’s pleasure or indulgence.

Albert: When I post a healthy dish [on Instagram] I don’t get many likes, but then I’ll post a vegan doner kebab and I’ll get 700 likes. That’s why there’s so much vegan junk food everywhere you go, there’s burgers, chips, mac‘n’cheese, pizza. It’s to attract non-vegans as well as feeding a vegan’s indulgent side.

Antonino: It’s also because of the fact that from the beginning veganism has been attached to the raw broccoli stereotype.

Albert: Yes, and that vegans eat grass.

Antonino: Exactly, but with junk food they’re saying no, actually you can have tasteful food, you don’t have to eat just broccoli if you’re vegan. That’s why I guess it’s a much more popular choice.

I also wanted to ask about the personal aspect of the film, your [Albert’s] son makes a prominent appearance in it, is he vegan?

Albert: I would say now he’s vegan, 99% of the time because we feed him. He understands a lot, but if he wants to have ice-cream I’m not going to limit him to be honest.

Antonino: He eats lots of ice cream. Since the first time I met him and all the time I’ve spent with him I’ve never felt like he was forced to eat a vegan diet, he’s always happy and proud of it, and sometimes he asks me why I’m not vegan. He’s very aware. For me he’s the proof that we don’t eat animals because we need to, we do it because of our culture, the way we grow up, conditioning. There’s no natural way, there’s just a cultural way. You’re not something naturally, that doesn’t exist in a human being. Everything is shaped by culture and even though there are some things you think would never change, like your gender, you can’t say that’s 100% true, because it’s something very fluid and it changes with the human species and the environment.

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Do you think that’s what we’re going through now, this cultural shift of realising that everything can be fluid?

Albert: With diet, with health, with the environment, with plastic, I think there’s a shift of consciousness.

Antonino: Gender as well, people are now more aware that things are not only black and white, you’ll always find a shade in between.  

Do you have any message you want the audience to take away from this film?

Antonino: I want people to watch it and to feel like they’ve seen a good piece of cinema. At the end of the day we’re making films, and if they do that then that’s an achievement already. You just have to be lucky to get something out of a film.

Albert: I would say what I said earlier, we’re on a journey and we all have our own paths.

Antonino: The overall message is to be aware of yourself, be aware of what’s around you and make sure you don’t ignore it.

Man and Beyond screens at Screen25 on Friday 2 November. Book now.

Catriona Mahmoud