A director and war correspondent covering the Syrian Civil War since the time of the Arab Spring, Marcel Mettelsiefen has seen his reports aired through outlets including CNN and Al Jazeera, making a name for himself with a series of shorts about children coming of age in the war-torn country. In evaluating the consequences of the Syrian Civil War, children are at top of mind for Mettelsiefen, as seen in his Oscar nominated documentary short, Watani: My Homeland.
Shot over the course of three years, the short documents a Syrian family’s flight from their homeland to the safety of small-town Germany in the pursuit of a better, safer life. As bittersweet as anything, the doc reveals a hard fact that even its maker struggled to reconcile: While Hala has found safety for her young children in a new land, no one is entirely better off for what they’ve left behind.
Speaking with Deadline, Mettelsiefen discusses the difficult and dangerous three-year journey to get the doc made, also touching on Donald Trump’s travel ban, and what he would say to the 45th President of the United States.
You started at medical school in 2004, going on to become a prolific war correspondent, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. How did you end up on this path?
I was a skilled photographer before going to medical school, and before finishing it, a year before my degree, I decided to have a break and do skilled photography again. I went to Afghanistan, and after this, I started to cover the Arab Spring, still as a photojournalist, and never touched video. It was 2011 when, due to the limitations of not being able to go [into the Middle East] as an official photographer, I went in as a doctor, on a visa. The reason: I was not able to take a normal camera, my equipment I normally work with. I was instead working with my iPhone and [was] the medic for Spiegel, a German publication. I brought a normal, very small, very cheap camcorder. This was the first time I started to do video.
What was it that compelled you to go over there in the first place?
The fact that I was, very early on, realizing that there was almost nobody able to enter the country as a journalist. I thought, I need to tell the story, and I just started this whole thing and I realized, actually, right in the beginning that it’s the medium I’ve been looking for—that I loved it, and I love storytelling and being able to talk with people, and record what they’re saying. I pretty much realized straight away that’s what I had been looking for.
You’d previously made another film featuring the same subjects. Do you consider Watani: My Homeland an extension of that prior effort?
I had a lot of different films before, like shorter news pieces—I went from three minutes to 15 minutes, and then I did 30 minutes, and I had various topics alongside the entire development of the Syrian uprising. This film, Watani: My Homeland, is about the same family I did one film about already in 2013, and includes four minutes of this film, Children on the Frontline.
This is four minutes in 2013, but I kept on filming, and that’s why I was able to do the story and re-enter Syria for some time—until 2014, when James Foley got killed, and it became too dangerous to keep on going inside. I had a cameraman with my Syrian driver and translator who filmed how they left Syria, and then I picked up again and filmed everything else myself.
Having made several films about children caught up in wartime, what is it that resonates with you about this subject?
In Syria, it was, in the beginning, quite a journalistic reason why. I realized that children, especially in the Syrian uprising, kind of played quite a significant role. Obviously to understand and to see how children cope with such a devastating reality and environment was in a way, for me, a new angle and approach, to tell the story a lot of people just turned away from.
People like you and me are in danger, people with families like you and me are trapped in a terrible disaster, and we shouldn’t look away. We have to take these kind of things seriously. It could happen to us.
With Watani: My Homeland, I was not only able to do a film about children— it was a film about the very complicated and deep positions of parents, of the mother, who, in the first place, had to take the position of not leaving right away, but staying there, and kind of sacrificing her kids for the country. She saw it as an important thing to do, to stand against a criminal government. Then to realize once the revolution’s been hijacked by radical Islamists, that there was no country worth sacrificing or killing the children, and it was just too dangerous to stay there. So that’s why she left.
What I realized while making it is that it’s not a typical refugee film—it’s a much more emotional journey you’re able to witness of a Muslim female family, which is already quite a difficult thing to approach, because nowadays, Muslim female family members are so protected, and you would not be able to film them. But she opened up and she gave me her trust, and I was able to film it over three years.
How did you initially meet this family and gain their trust?
I’ve been covering Syria so much beforehand, I knew the father, Abu Ali. The only children in his area were his own children. So he introduced me to them, and I stayed, and I was immediately aware that these are very special children. Unfortunately on the first trip I did, I was not able to stay much longer than four days because it became so dangerous. I was then convinced that I just needed to keep doing it because this family is just extraordinary. They opened up so much that I was able to become invisible.
Throughout these three years, obviously there was a lot of doubt. I produced it all myself with my money, nobody wanted to send me out to Syria—it was just too dangerous. The only reason why I stayed is because I realized how strong the characters are.
It’s emotionally affecting to hear the children’s perspective on the world—when they flee to Germany, it’s clear that they’re finely attuned to the possibility of danger in the world, but also to the world’s great beauty.
That’s what excited me in the beginning, is that I realized the emotional intensity they were able to deliver. Although I do understand Arabic, I was not able to speak it. I’m able to understand if they would answer precisely my question, but I would not understand literally what they said. I was doing blind interviews because I never would ask somebody to translate on the spot. I would translate it later, in the edit.
For me, the only way to understand if I have a strong interview is by the emotional intensity that the characters would answer the questions. It’s poetry. When we arrived at the beach after leaving Syria, and being trapped in the city for over three years, they see the water and they jump, in their clothes, into the water. I had to deal with the camera—I had almost no battery. [Helen] screamed into the camera, and when I read the translation afterwards, what she says is: “I am not swimming, I am dreaming.” It’s something so beautiful.
And this is just one out of a lot of different quotes and moments I had to pick for the film, because Arabic is a very rich language. People do talk like this in Arabic, but I think it is definitely as well the strength of this particular family, how they express themselves.
At a running time of 40 minutes, your short is one of the longest nominated in its category. What were the biggest challenges in seeing it through?
It was an endless chain of challenges. As a filmmaker, to be involved for such a long time with the same characters is very challenging—especially when you have a mother with four children in need. It’s quite a schizophrenic situation where you don’t when is the right moment to not film, and to help. You’re just not able to not be involved.
Filmmaking, especially documentaries, is about opening up people, and in order to receive, and to gain their trust, you have to give yourself. Especially if you’re living in Syria, this is a 24/7 job. There’s no telling where it can go, and throughout, I was staying in their same room. I’ve been used to it as a photographer in Syria and other countries—it’s the way we work.
In 2015, the huge wave of refugees started to come into Europe, and the family I’ve been following were lucky enough to be before this huge wave. This mother Hala, as she says, she had to die in order to build a new life on the ruins. She had to say goodbye to her husband, Abu Ali. So her grief, and her being physically there, but emotionally obviously not there, this was, for me at least—and I hope that the audience understands it—if this family would have been able to choose, they never would have left.
She lost everything—she lost her husband, she lost her home, her homeland, which is why the film is Watani, which means “the homeland.” For me, as a German, the most important message for a German audience is to say, “There’s almost a million refugees who are in Germany. If they would have been able to choose, they would have stayed [in their countries of origin].” It took a while until I understood that although they did not have to cross the sea on a boat, although she should be happy, she can’t. It’s not the place she wants to come.
What would you say about this film’s relevance or meaning today, with all that’s happened recently, both in the United States—with Donald Trump’s travel ban—and across the globe?
There’s so many moments where you obviously feel that the entire Syrian tragedy is so unbelievable, terrifying and sad. In the United States, two things—first, I think it’s terrible and scary what the new U.S. government is doing, and at the same time, it’s encouraging to see this large movement of civil society, journalists, actors, who stand against it, and who are saying that it’s not our America. We have a different view, we’re going to resist. So it’s interesting, the waking of a lot of people—at least, I do have the impression when I talk to people, and I watch social media.
On the other hand, the most important thing—and that’s why I thought this film could be important, as well, for the U.S.—and that’s what a lot of people told me who watched this, coming from the U.S., the message of, “Let’s remember that our country, the United States of America, has been built by strong and brave people who once came on a boat to this country, in order to build a new country, and because they had to flee their countries, from miseries, from war.” It’s basically the narrative of the Founding Fathers of your nation, and it’s not so far away. I think in a world and hate and [division] is shaping the future, we should be aware that humanity and social responsibility is very important, in order to have a peaceful life.
Is that what you would communicate to President Trump, if you had the chance?
Well, I don’t know how I would put it in words, because definitely I would hope that this message kind of arrives. It’s quite a difficult situation, to imagine myself telling this to a person like this. Being German, I wouldn’t have expected to listen to these speeches, and to play with these dangers, populism. We had it somewhere, and we know how dark and evil it ended. That’s why I think I would need to be very well prepared. [Laughs]