BC’s Usman Chohan, Documentary Chosen For Doc NYC Festival

Usman Chohan (left) with Hakki Akdeniz (right) at the screening of "Slice of Goodness" on Nov. 16./Young Cheong

By Kate Dempsey

 

   Champion Pizza may seem like just your average go-to spot when you need something to eat, but to many, the allure lies behind the person who runs the pizza chain: Hakki Akdeniz. The first-generation immigrant turned Instagram superstar may just be running a business, but in “Slice of Goodness” by Brooklyn College senior Usman Chohan, viewers get a firsthand look at the entrepreneur’s everyday life. The documentary was selected for Doc NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, and was screened on Nov. 16.

   For Chohan, the documentary had its beginnings last semester in Video Storytelling, a course offered in the Television, Radio and Emerging Media Department by Professor Irina Patkanian. The assignment was a narrative documentary: telling a story without the filmmaker telling the story, which is different from a news documentary where it is very evident what the story is. Chohan chose Akdeniz after meeting him at a Ramadan event, where the star was giving out free pizzas to those breaking their fasts. From there, the relationship between them grew and eventually became a collaborative project.

   “He’s very humble enough that he doesn’t, you know, say, ‘Oh, you’re a student filmmaker. I don’t want you to interview me.’ In many ways, he was encouraging me to take certain shots and film certain ways; he was kind of a very active person and collaborating on this film,” Chohan told The Vanguard.

   Those who know briefly of Akdeniz’s story know that upon arriving in America, he was homeless and living on New York City’s streets for a number of years. After saving up some money, he was able to get his own place and eventually open “Hakki’s Pizza,” later renamed “Champion Pizza” due to many calling him by the nickname “Champ.”

   30.7 million followers and six stores later, Akdeniz’s story has captivated many, which is why Chohan chose him as the subject of his documentary.

   “I always felt that this story was such a compelling story because, you know, to start in a new country with very little English to what is two decades ago and being homeless, to go having a pizza chain stores that often gives back to the community,” Chohan said. “In a way, people like that underdog story, and I felt that it may have had a chance.”

   Boosting Akdeniz’s large following is his elaborate dough-tossing skills (think Salt Bae, but for pizza), and his charitable work, which often includes giving away free pizzas to hundreds of homeless people. But even with this larger-than-life online persona, Akendiz is shown in the documentary as never forgetting his humble roots.

   “People they say, ‘Hakki, dude, you know, like you become famous now. You big on social media.’ You know what? I don’t care, it’s nothing man. You have to have it here, if you have in your heart over here that’s an international language. You just have to be a good human being,” Akdeniz told Chohan in the documentary.

   Even with such a large following online that seems to document Akdeniz’s whole life, viewers of Chohan’s documentary get to experience what everyday life is like for the star.

   “I purposefully chose the title ‘Slice of Goodness’ for the reason is that no, it’s not going to tell them about all of his life, it’s like a slice of his life,” Chohan explained. “It’s a portion of what you see, like him managing the pizza store, him managing the presence on social media, and just, you know, being an all-around genuine, kind person.”

   For Chohan, being selected for Doc NYC is part of his own humble beginnings of being a journalist, hoping to one day be an on-air reporter. At the festival, where Akdeniz joined him on stage, Chohan had the opportunity to show his work and represent the only CUNY-affiliated documentary selected for 2023 amongst several private institutions.

   “Yes, it was my film. Yes, it was my idea to do it. But to represent Brooklyn College and the CUNY system, going head-to-head with all these private institutions was a really good symbol of that just because you go to a public university or public college doesn’t mean that you can’t make great work.”

   To Chohan, shadowing Akdeniz in his life (with a few delicious slices of free pizza along the way) was a rewarding experience, and being selected for Doc NYC demonstrated reciprocity of uplifting one another’s voices.

   “I really didn’t care about winning, I just wanted to showcase my work,” Chohan said. “I wanted to get on stage and introduce myself.”

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