It was in a hospital in Aleppo that Marcel Mettelsiefen came away with a new perspective on how to tell a story about the tragedy unfolding in Syria, one that resembled what he had seen too many other times before in covering political uprisings in Haiti where he had seen Jean-Bertrand Aristide overthrown, the 2009 Kunduz airstrike that claimed over 100 civilian lives in Afghanistan, and the seeds of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Embedded with anti-regime activists where every day was filled with violence, the same scenes that appear on the TV news that have sadly become all too routine, Mettelsiefen witnessed a human dimension of the situation that often goes unreported when news of mass casualties renders the devastation largely anonymous, seeing a 14-year-old boy who was helping to treat those who were injured in the streets. Mettelsiefen was struck by the boy’s demeanor, blissfully uncomplicated in his motives to help and yet with much to lose since his generation will be reaping the losses of a war they did not start.
Mettelsiefen was moved to make his first film, “Children of Aleppo,” which followed a freedom fighter named Abu Ali and his family, comprised of his wife Hala and their four-year-old Sara, the seven-year-old Farah, the 10-year-old Helen, and the 12-year-old Mohammed as they endured living under the daily threat of bombs and gunfire. But the filming came to an abrupt end when Abu Ali was abducted by ISIS. The photojournalist-turned-filmmaker escaped imminent threat himself and resolved to check in on the family, eventually picking up his camera again once they were safely in Turkey to show them as they went through the process of not only grieving a patriarch who still hasn’t been found, but relocating from the only place they knew as home. In following the family to Germany, his latest film, “Watani: My Homeland” sheds light on the psychological toll of displacement, capturing the ineffable way that memory can continually blur the present, even among children who have a greater capacity to put their past behind them.
Over the course of three years, Mettelsiefen tracks the evolution of attitudes amongst the luminescent clan, adjusting to a new culture during years that are already fraught with issues of identity. School becomes both a refuge for the kids, suddenly surrounded by others their own age, and a place where their differences stand out, and as they find it healthy to let go of certain traditions, they cling onto others as a way of holding onto their roots. Still, as Hala, the mother remains incredibly fragile, the children are able to draw upon their innocence as a source of strength and their ability to see the world with fresh eyes often results in unusually poignant observations. The same could be said of “Watani: My Homeland” as a whole since Mettelsiefen brings a light touch and an entirely different approach than most to the story of political refugees. With the film recently shortlisted for the Best Documentary Short Oscar, the director spoke about how a clever name change allowed him such incredible access in Syria, having such young and eloquent subjects, and realizing the struggle of simply being a refugee on a daily basis is cinematic.
What was it that drew you to Syria in the first place?
I’d been covering the Arab Spring from very, very early on as a photojournalist and as a still photographer. I started in Tunisia, Egypt, and then Libya, and we realized that Syria was going to start an uprising as well, so we thought okay, let’s try to get a visa for Syria, which was already quite difficult. Assad wanted to have journalists either totally controlled or not even coming into the country, so when the Arab Spring started, it was even more complicated. I tricked the embassy a little bit by applying with my second name — my mother’s South American, and I never worked as a photographer with my Latin American name, which is Jorge, so I applied as Jorge Mettelsiefen. I’d also been to medical school before [becoming a photojournalist], so it was Jorge the medical student applying for a student visa. Due to this little trick, I came out of the embassy with a multi-entry visa for an entire year, which nobody had. This was the reason I started to cover Syria.
This was also the reason why I changed from photography into video because I was undercover and I had to take pictures for my magazine — I was working for the German magazine Spiegel — with my iPhone, so I thought if I’m not able to bring my 5D Mark II, then I can bring a little video camcorder and I’m going to start to make some video. That was basically the first time I ever shot moving pictures and I never stopped. Getting involved in one of the most interesting, dramatic, tragic parts of history, I was able to understand the whole complexity from early on — I kept going in because I entered a country which was not at war, but [it was] becoming what it is right now and due to this, I was able to have a huge network of people within the underground movement, which provided me security.
After what was my 24th time going into Syria in 2013, it was already the third year [of fighting], and I was not going in incognito anymore, so I was able to bring in proper equipment and I decided to do a story [about the war] through the eyes of children because children in the Syrian uprising played a quite relevant role. I’d been to Aleppo so many times before, I knew the father Abu Ali and the area where he was based, and I approached him and asked if there are children, and he said the only children that are in this area are my own. He introduced me to [his daughter] Farah, the little one first, and then [his older daughter] Helen, and these are exactly the children I’m looking for.
This is actually a continuation of your first film “Children of Aleppo” in a way — what made you want to do a followup?
The first film was commissioned by Channel 4 in 2014 and I realized this family is so unbelievably strong, but it was unfortunately the fourth day of me being there filming them when the situation got out of control. The situation was so dangerous – two French and two Spanish journalists got kidnapped – two of them got killed, it was just too dangerous to stay any longer, and I had to leave with just four days of footage in the can. We made the film, and we won an Emmy and two BAFTAs, but [I kept thinking] the family’s so strong that we had to keep filming them and that’s why I decided to keep following them.
I had a big problem because nobody wanted to commission me [to make another film on this subject], so I had to start to produce my own film with my own money, not knowing if there is if there is going to be a film afterwards. It’s difficult to do a second time documentary about the very same characters because you’re not able to disappear. This first moment of being invisible, it’s not there anymore, so it was quite challenging to do this.
Did you shoot this all on your own? How many times would you check in on the family?
In Syria, I had the most time alone because I paid for it all myself and it’s quite expensive and risky. In Turkey, I brought one time a second cameraman [for part of it], but mostly everything in Germany is all me. For certain parts, I had a sound guy, but I mostly filmed everything. As you can see, I used four minutes of the first film and then the rest is all new footage, so we do have the 2014 situation where the mother explains Abu Ali is missing. The entire sequence of saying goodbye and arriving to Turkey was filmed within seven months, although they basically were able to apply for a visa much earlier when the huge wave of refugees came, so there were in total, I think, seven trips we made into Syria and into Turkey. Then when they arrived in Germany, I visited once every two weeks. It was so much more difficult to get something done once in Germany because just the jeopardy disappeared, so the only thing that was important was how they developed and I just needed to wait and play the time.
You go about interviewing the family in an interesting way – not that it’s unusual, but you talk to the kids individually rather than together as one might expect at their age and connection to each other. Was that actually something important for you or did it just work out that way?
Over the three years, I realized a couple of things. First, to follow the same characters over three years, it’s so difficult to not be involved [in their lives], especially if it’s a family in need, so it’s easier to have this one-to-one interview to build this environment and this intimacy you need in order to have their poetry come through. The second reason [for the individual interviews] is that each of them just developed so differently that I wanted to show the different ways of adapting to a new future and to a new life. When I realized Helen was becoming quite a teenage girl and Mohammed was reacting the other way by watching how she changed and he held even stronger onto his Arab roots without being radical at all, but just trying to understand for himself where he comes from and where he is right now, it was very interesting to see.
Was it a bit of a shock to see the family in different cultural contexts?
It was interesting to see how they reacted to all their new challenges, but as a filmmaker I struggled quite a bit when I realized there’s so many other filmmakers were doing films about refugees because this was breaking news over weeks and weeks, and you’re seeing such strong footage of these masses of people walking through Bulgaria or Hungary, and I didn’t have this. My family was one of the 30,000 who were privileged to receive a visa before even leaving Turkey, so they did not even have to risk their life to reach Germany, and I thought they did not suffer enough in order to be representative for a film. But then I realized that it doesn’t matter how you reach the country – Germany – everybody goes through the same pain and the fact is [no refugee] never, ever chose to go there. If they would have been able to choose, they would’ve stayed in [Syria], but it was impossible because the country was just not safe enough.
You could tell the story from so many different angles and I think what a documentary film needs to do is break it down to understand the emotional consequences of what it means to be a refugee, so what I tried to do with the entire thing is to make an emotional journey not of refugees [but] of a family who decided early on to stay in [Syria] and risk everything for their country, even the most precious thing they have – their own children, and then how they had to realize everything was in vain. They lost the father and then they had to leave the country. [Hala, the matriarch] says [in the film], he has to die in order to give them a new life – and this for me is the most important part of this film is to understand and feel that they never chose to come.
There is a great moment of relief when you see the family storm a beach at night, having a rare moment of fun. How did that scene come about?
They’d been picked up by their cousin who was already in Turkey who had a minivan and they had to go to a little village on their way to Istanbul, which was close to the sea. These kids were freaking out and they wanted to run to the beach – they hadn’t seen the beach for ages because they used to in Latakia, where [Abu Ali] comes from, before the war started. It was a couple of hours after leaving Turkey where those kids played — I needed to put my camera batteries in and run after them! You can see they’re totally dressed and they run into the waves with their shoes and their jeans. It just was pure emotion and there again, you see the quality of character in their total passion. You drag Helen out [of the water] and ask her for a quote — and normally you have a child saying, “Please leave me alone, let me play” — but she comes up with this poetry where she says she’s not swimming, she’s dreaming, like the waves have been missing [the family] and they’re eating them up. [It was like] “Wow, this is amazing.”