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Meet the Oscar-Nominated Documentarian Who Wants Viewers to ‘Wake Up’

Watani: My Homeland director Marcel Mettelsiefen says the Academy Award nomination is nice—but he’s campaigning for Syrian refugees, not accolades.
In Watani: My Homeland, Hala Kamil (above) flees Syria with her four children for Germany.

In Watani: My Homeland, Hala Kamil (above) flees Syria with her four children for Germany.

Hala Kamil’s battle is not yet over.

After her husband was kidnapped by ISIS in 2014, Kamil and her four children left their home in Aleppo, Syria, bound for Germany. The family spent time in refugee camps and waited for months in Istanbul for German refugee passports before finally resettling in a foreign town. All the while, Kamil continued to mourn for her lost husband and home country. Now, Kamil is facing another uphill struggle, this time simply to get to the American awards ceremony that’s fêting her incredible story: the Academy Awards.

The White House’s recent foreign policy decisions haven’t made it easy. In late January, Watani’s director Marcel Mettelsiefen told the New York Times that Kamil wouldn’t be able to make the ceremony following President Donald Trump’s now-stayed executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. After a federal appeals court declined to restore the legally challenged order in February, Kamil announced via a statement last Wednesday that she would be attending. “I’m so grateful to have this chance,” she wrote. Now, with Trump promising another executive order “tailored” to the federal court’s decision, her attendance is again in jeopardy, Mettelsiefen says. “It’s insane, what’s going on — you just don’t know anymore,” he says, noting that at least she’s checked in for her flight and has obtained a temporary visa from the United States embassy.

In 2013, when Watani begins, Kamil’s family is the only one with children left in the Saif-al-Dawla neighborhood of Aleppo, adjacent to the Syrian Army. Kamil’s husband, Abu Ali Slaibeh, is a field commander in the Free Syrian Army, and his children can’t stand to live away from him, though his decision to raise his children amid the sound of dropping shells haunts him. “I am destroying my children’s future right now,” he says. “I have sacrificed my children for the revolution.”

But when ISIS kidnaps their father, Kamil decides to preserve that future—and, in June of 2014, her family packs their bags for Turkey to apply for asylum at the German Consulate. It’s a relatively smooth process: In April of 2015, after Germany announced it would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees, the family settles in a large, comfortable house in Goslar, a quaint town where the population is aging and schoolchildren welcome her three daughters and son. The streets are clean and the airplanes flying overhead don’t drop shells, to the children’s delight—but Kalim still lingers over memories of her husband and her homeland. “Mum isn’t happy here,” one of her children says. “But everyone else, the naughty ones, are happy.”

German director Mettelsiefen, a former wartime photojournalist, says he hopes the film will force viewers to find common ground with refugees and citizens of Muslim-majority countries. “I wanted to tell a counter-narrative to the news that has been dominantly coming out of Syria of radical Islamists gaining power and people chopping off heads,” he said in a call from Barcelona on Friday. “The large majority of people who are suffering this war are civilians, families, children, women. They are now put into a box of this narrative with Islamic terrorists, though they are the ones fleeing and suffering the violence from Islamic terrorists.”

On Friday, Mettelsiefen talked about why he wanted to tell his story through the eyes of children, and why it’s important for political Oscar speeches to raise awareness for broader humanitarian crises.

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Tell me a little bit about how this movie got started for you, and how you met Hala and Abu Ali’s family in the first place.

In 2013 I decided to do a film though the eyes of children, but I knew I needed to find the right children. I’ve been covering Syria for a long time: I used to be a [news] photographer, and I was working in the region for over 15 years for various publications. I had a very big advantage in that I had a big network of people who were able to help me work in this country. I had met Abu Ali on a couple of trips before, and I knew that he was a charismatic guy, a respected person. I approached him to ask if he knew about children I could follow. He pointed out straight away his own children—he said they were the only children in this area, and that he would be happy for me to follow them.

Was it difficult, at times, to get the children on board with your project?

This is an extraordinary family because they are so full of poetry and they have dreams; they open up right away. The beauty of documentary filmmaking is when things are happening in front of your comrades but you are almost invisible: They do things in front of you as if you aren’t there, and I had this feeling right away with them.

The second reason I thought these were extraordinary characters is because they [form] a [majority] female family. It’s a Syrian, Muslim female family, which is a very difficult thing to access—especially if you’re a man and you’re foreign. I hadn’t seen anything coming out of Syria where women are playing an important role. I knew that this was a very strong story, and I had to follow them.

You’ve said that you trained as a doctor before becoming a photojournalist. Where do you personally draw the line between documenting your subjects and intervening in the story when one might be in danger?

I was lucky enough that I never had to think, “which role should I [play], the person who used to study medicine for a few years, or the journalist?” The much more difficult challenge was understanding when I could be myself, the normal person, following a family over three years and becoming part of the family. You can’t just stand outside and watch; you become involved. I think if you want to gain access to an intimate, emotional story, you have to get involved, because that’s how you gain trust. You have to give yourself.

This was, for me, the most difficult challenge: to understand my role as to when it was the appropriate moment to film. Are there moments when I have to not film and have to listen and be there to talk, so that they feel that it’s not about the story, it’s about them? I felt a personal urge to keep this balance right.

Did there ever get to be a point where it was too dangerous for you to film?

I’ve been based in Afghanistan, I’ve been in a lot of conflict areas, but in Syria the difficulty became more and more obviously the danger of being kidnapped. I knew James Foley very well, and I’d never lost so many people I know around me, especially Syrian people who helped me. It was emotionally a very challenging thing.

But especially when I did this film, the danger started to increase more and more. The very last sequence of the family leaving the city was after Foley got killed—it was my driver, Mahmoud Othman, who I trained to film the sequence where they say goodbye to the grandma and they leave the city. He did a brilliant job. That was after the moment when I decided I wasn’t going to be able to go back in again—the day that [Foley] appeared in [an execution video] in an orange jumpsuit, I said, “OK, that’s it.”

When you were documenting the family’s arrival in Germany, what surprised you about the integration process?

There are so many other families that so suffered so much more to even get to Germany, because this family was earlier applying for a political visa for asylum, six months earlier than the big wave of refugees. [Initially] I thought, they did not suffer enough, they are not representative enough. But then I realized: [The mother] should be happy, having this house, being in safety, but she’s not. Why? Because she never wanted to leave in the first place; she would have stayed if she had a choice. And this is exactly what we have to understand: If these people would have been able to choose, they would have stayed in the country. They are not coming to use our welfare system, they are coming because of a huge international failure of international politics.

What was your ultimate goal in making this film, and to what extent does the Oscar nomination help you accomplish it?

Being a German, and realizing what kind of huge challenge Germany is facing right now as it tries to integrate almost a million refugees, I wanted to to help people understand and relate to a complicated, controversial, polarizing topic. You hear the numbers, you hear the stories, but I wanted to break it down to [one] story—quite an epic story—of a mother who has to make the only decision that every loving and caring mother would make, realizing her children are in danger. Maybe people would start to think, hey, this could be me, this could be my neighbor, this could be all of us. I think this is the power of documentary filmmaking: that you try to tell an emotional story, and through this emotional story and approach, people understand or relate to a reality which is not their reality. It is important for acceptance and tolerance and compassion, which should shape our world, and not hate and fear.

The nomination at the Oscars is obviously [important] now, in a time when your country is going through a very, very big, divided crisis. There’s a new government that’s trying to play very, very fearless with all of these big topics, and at the same time people are standing up against them and saying, this is not how we see our country, this is not how we want our future to be shaped. As for the Oscar nomination, it showed that Hollywood became political [in this moment], and also that it’s the right film at the right time.

If the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards are any indication, several speeches at this year’s ceremony are going to touch on the topic of refugees and Trump’s travel ban. As someone who has followed a Syrian family for three years, what is your position on that kind of awards-ceremony political dialogue? To what extent can it move the needle on awareness and action?

For me, this entire Oscar and awards experience is obviously something where I say, OK, career-wise it’s important, it’s opening doors, and I’m honored. At the same time, I hope that we are able to bring this back to the political agenda—to raise our own voices and raise awareness is the most important thing.

Because it’s not about the film—people are dying as we speak. Unfortunately, for a long time, we haven’t been able to understand the right way to prevent this human catastrophe, this huge injustice going on right now in Syria. We are paying the consequences of a country that is getting more and more divided right now. And it’s not only the Islamic State: Our people [gravitate toward] radical ideas because they feel neglected, they feel pushed away. That’s why I think we are in a very crucial moment of history, and we should wake up.

I will continue to work on these social topics and [in the future] I won’t have to go to the Middle East, or to war-torn countries. It’s already just around the corner.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.