Oscar-Nominated Short Tells the Story of Syrian Refugee Family's Journey to Germany

Courtesy of ITN Productions

"The only thing coming out of Syria right now is the story of radical Islam, and we forget the human story," director Marcel Mettelsiefen tells THR about his documentary 'Watani: My Homeland.'

Marcel Mettelsiefen, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary short Watani: My Homeland, spent three years with four Syrian children, documenting their journey from fighters on the front lines of the civil war that has ravaged their country to political refugees in Germany.

A German native, Mettelsiefen went to Syria as a photographer for Der Spiegel and met Abu Ali, a commander in the Free Syrian Army and the father of Hammoudi, Helen, Farah and Sara. After Ali was abducted by ISIS militants, mother Hala and her children fled to Turkey and, ultimately, to Germany, where they found political asylum, with Mettelsiefen chronicling the transition. 

Watani is up for consideration at a time when the Syrian refugee crisis has become heavily embattled subject in American politics.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, setting off a series of protests and legal battles that most recently ended in a federal appeals panel ruling 3-0 to uphold a suspension of Trump’s ban. 

Amid this, Mettelsiefen spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the three years he spent with Abu Ali, Hala and their children, and the dangers of sweeping immigration bans.  

As a filmmaker, what was the most compelling part of the family’s narrative?

In Syria, everything was big and dangerous and visual. Once they left, I had to understand how I could continue to tell their story. I then realized that the most important thing to capture in this film is their development. This was the most interesting part for me, as the person who followed these kids around for three years. 

But what makes a character a good character is the access you have, the trust you are able to gain. The very special part of it is that this is a female Muslim family. Normally, if you are a man, you are not able to stay with the female women in the same room. But they allowed me to live with them for three years, sleeping in the same room.

Why do you think you were allowed this type of access?

Hala, very deliberately, wanted to tell a counter-narrative to what is perceived about her religion, in the entire world — this Islamaphobic and xenophobic reaction of, for example, the U.S. government and in Germany. When we watch [this family] we can relate to the decision that a mother takes. Every mother in such a dangerous situation would make the same decisions to take her children and try to leave and seek shelter in another country.

What do you see as the largest misconception about the refugee experience among the public?

I think generally with the news — and this is the difficult part of the news-overloaded time we are living in — we are not able to relate to these people anymore. It's too fast, it's too much. This is the strength of a documentary; you are able to relate to the people. 

In what way is the family you spent three years with representative of the refugee experience?

In 2015, this family was able to seek political asylum in Turkey, months before the huge wave of refugees started to hit Europe. They were able to get passports from the German embassy in Istanbul and were able to fly to Germany instead of crossing the Mediterranean. For a long time, I was worried that this family was not representative enough of the refugee experience. Did they suffer enough? You might think that someone who was able to come on an airplane [to Germany] and live in a house, they don't have to suffer. But you realize that they are not happy, because they never wanted to leave to begin with. If they could, they would go back. They lost their homeland, their identity, their roots, their house, the flowers in their garden.

What was your first reaction to President Trump’s executive order outlining the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering America?

This is exactly what radical Islamists want. They want the divide. They want Muslims to be treated this way so more people can be radicalized against the U.S. [The ban] is more proof that the media needs to get the kind of stories out that tell a counter-narrative of the "radical Muslim." The only thing coming out of Syria right now is the story of radical Islam, and we forget the human story, and this is very dangerous.

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