Interview by Q. Lei
In the spring of 2015, journalist and filmmaker Matthew Cassel began an extraordinary journey with 31-year-old Syrian father, Aboud Shalhoub. He spent a year documenting Aboud’s trip from Istanbul to the Netherlands, his long journey to reunite with his wife and two children after they were separated by the war in Damascus. Matthew believes that the portrait of refugees by the mainstream media is missing real human stories, He hopes that his documentary The Journey to Europe will give viewers an insight into what the refugee crisis means on an individual and personal level.
Refugees, migration and wars in the Middle East are among the most discussed issues in the last two years. Matthew’s documentary stands out as one of the few, if not the only, accounts of the refugee crisis that focuses not only on numbers but features real human stories. How many families were separated by the wars like Aboud’s? How many are now in ill-equipped boats or walking across the continents only to be reunited? Once landed, how can they be integrated into a new community? There are so many questions that need to be asked and answered in order to gain insight into the refugee crisis. The Journey to Europe is a journalist’s attempt to understand what is really going on in Europe and in the Middle East by asking sincere questions and not being afraid of where these questions lead him.
Commissioned by Field of Vision and published in English by The New Yorker in May 2016, The Journey to Europe is around 80 minutes in total, split into six parts. The entire documentary can be found on The New Yorker website:
BLYNKT spoke to the filmmaker about his own journey in the making of it.
QL: How did you meet Aboud?
MC: I met him through Syrian friends. At the beginning I had no intention of following or filming him. Aboud and his friends came to me because they thought I could help them with my United Nations contacts, so that when they made the trip from Turkey to Greece, someone in the UN knew that they were making this trip. They thought it would prevent them from being detained and sent back by the Greek border guards to Turkey, which actually ended up happening.
They came to me, an American journalist with the hope that I could help them. That’s how I met Aboud. It was actually Easter Weekend, 2015. In Greece on Easter everything shuts down. So when I was making these phone calls friends of mine, who work in the NGOs and the United Nations, said, “ok, but it is Thursday afternoon, we are going to leave for the next five days for the Easter holidays, so no one is going to be in the office.” I told Aboud and his friends that maybe it is a bad time to go, because no one works on the Easter weekend in Greece. But they were so impatient. When Aboud made the decision to go to Europe to be with his family, he just wanted to get to that place as soon as possible, because every minute he waited, every day he waited, it was one more minute, one more day away from his family. I understand that impatience. They ended up trying to go anyway.
QL: How did you start making the documentary
MC: It was a very organic process. It’s wonderful. Sometimes when I do journalism, I feel really bad afterwards, especially when it is not my project, because with my projects, I have control.
I have done producing, translating, shooting, all kinds of positions for different news outlets. You talk to someone for an hour, and you see it end up being made into literally a five-second sound bite. I feel so bad that I make this person give us so much, and in the end we use five seconds of that.
The process of making this documentary was much more organic in the sense that it all just happened, and I wasn’t trying to get that sound bite. I was trying to explore who this person was, why he was doing this trip, what he had to go through in order to get where he wanted to go.
When I finished the project, I had absolutely no negative feelings about the experience. Thankfully, it is a positive story in many ways. But I don’t feel bad about my own involvement as a journalist.
During the past year working on this story, I do find myself hating this industry more and more. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues, but there are some serious problems in the way we conduct journalism. It is an important tool to inform people, but we sometimes take the tool for granted. It is often about getting the story out there quickly and not necessarily telling it as truthfully as we should be.
I tried to pitch Aboud’s story to different media I was working for at the time. One in particular, the editor there told me straight up, “I am tired of refugee stories. Find something else.” This was in April or May, 2015. It was still ahead of the big wave, the 1.2 million that would end up traveling through Greece to Europe later in the year. There was still little coverage of the refugee crisis. But my boss told me that he wasn’t interested in it. I just thought, “Aboud is such a nice guy. He reminds me so much of myself in so many ways.” So I decided that I would follow him and see where it goes. And that’s what ended up happening. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him from one day to the next. And I had no idea what kind of project I would end up producing. Maybe I’d do a five-minute video, maybe a twenty-minute video. I had no idea that it was going to be a six-part series of about an hour and twenty minutes in total. I just took it one day at a time, and that, again, was an organic process - just seeing where the story developed and following this person as he went through this pretty extraordinary journey.
QL: What is journalism to you?
MC: In today’s journalism, the editors decide beforehand what the story is, rather than let the story tell itself. It is backward, right? I am doing this assignment now here in Athens for example, they want very specific things, so they tell me to go get it. I feel a little bit bad in the way I am doing it, but at the end of the day I will be giving space for the refugees to talk about their predicaments, their lives, etc., and that’s important as well. To be honest, I am a bit torn about it because it is not a real way of doing journalism. The real way of doing journalism would be: “hey, why don’t you go see what the story is and come back and tell us about that. Then let’s build a report based on that.” No, that’s not the way journalism functions now, which is why I am increasingly frustrated with the industry. We are exploiting people. I did this trip with Aboud and all these other refugees and migrants over the course of a year. I have a different passport and all kinds of privileges that they don’t. But at the end of the day too, they are making this journey for a better life. I am making this journey because I care about this story, but I am also getting paid for it. It is a very strange feeling. I am part of an industry that profits from people’s suffering. I struggle with that but I also want to be able to keep doing this work, because I think it is important to tell people stories. And I need to be able to make a few bucks, otherwise I won’t be able to keep doing journalism.
QL: What is your relationship with the people in your film?
MC: When I first met Aboud, you can see him at the beginning, he had this big beard. He intimidated me. I thought, this guy looked like he came straight out of the battlefield from Syria. But then I spent a couple of days with him and I realized that he is one of the nicest, gentlest people I have ever met. He is so patient. He never raises his voice. We are roughly the same age. I have lived in his region for many years, I know the culture, we would have been friends under any other circumstances. Aboud and I could really connect and that definitely made a difference. It is also one of the reasons why I have chosen the Eastern Mediterranean region to do a lot of the work that I do. I like being able to fly beneath the radar, I learnt Arabic so I can sort of blend in and I have dark hair like most people in the area. I can operate without drawing too much attention to myself, which I think is really important for a journalist. On the journey, for example, when we were crossing these countries, I blended in with the group of refugees. When police saw us, they just assumed that I was also a refugee.
I established personal relationships with these people, and of course, it is a fine line. I was definitely friends with Aboud and other people in the group. But at the same time, I had to remind them (that I am a journalist), because I didn’t want to trick them into thinking, I am just their friend. Of course I am their friend, but I also had my own motivations for being with them, I am a journalist making a film about them. And they should know that, because I don’t want them to open up to me as friend and me taking advantage of that by possibly documenting something that they gave to me as friend, not as a journalist. It is a delicate balance.
And I want to make sure that anyone I film is aware that I am filming them, and whatever they are doing in front of the camera will be captured on the camera. At least, when the camera is rolling, they should know that they are not just talking to me, they are also talking to a lot of strangers. I think it is important that they know their actions could be made public later.
QL: What is the message that you hope to convey to the public via your documentary?
MC: There is not one specific message that I want to convey. The refugee crisis has been an issue we have all seen on all of the front pages of the newspapers, TV, and networks over the past year, non-stop. As someone who has spent time with these people, I felt that what was missing was real, human stories.
As someone who has spent time in these parts of the world it is clear to me that the front-page stories about refugees lack depth and do not humanize them. I know that back in America, or back in England, people are not getting an accurate picture. What’s missing from the picture is the pure humanity that we all have, regardless of where we are from. When we see coverage of the Middle East, or coverage of the refugees, it is (only) about the conflict. It is very superficial. For me, it is important to document the things I have witnessed. Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, they are the same as any of us. They have a different culture, a different language, but at the end of the day, they are just people like the rest of us. They have just been placed in some pretty extraordinary circumstances, and that’s what makes them a little different.
I find it important to show the kind of basic humanity, the little things, the jokes that people make, the way they get tired, the way they laugh, the way they miss their family, all of that. Once you start capturing that on camera, you allow for viewers to empathize and understand who these people are. That’s what I want to capture. That’s the message, if you will. You know, the complexity of these people. They have stories, real stories, complex stories, deep stories that need to be told. Unfortunately they are not being told enough, at least not in a very accurate way. I want to tell their stories, and people can take whatever message they want to from that. Regardless of where you come from politically or geographically, if you want to formulate an opinion on another place, you need to understand the people in that place. That’s why I think it is important to use feature filmmaking or feature journalism to get a little deeper and capture who these people really are.
QL: What kind of change do you want to inspire with your documentary?
MC: We have some serious issues in the world right now. Racism and xenophobia in Western Europe and North America are very frightening, especially for someone like me, who grew up with plenty of stories about racism and xenophobia in Europe in the twentieth century. I see so many similarities in that period I grew up learning about to what’s happening now. Just take out the word Muslim or Islam and replace it with Jew or Judaism, and ask yourself if that would be something ok for you to say. Of course not. But people are saying this kind of islamophobic and racist stuff day in and day out. It’s being published by mainstream media. It’s being said by mainstream politicians. I think we are at a crucial moment right now. By humanizing refugees, I very much want to directly confront those racist trends which are emerging right now in Europe and in the United States. I don’t want this to be seen just as a document of these people’s lives for people to sit and say, “oh, ok.” I very much hope that this spurs people into actions of some kind. I am not suggesting a new movement necessarily, but I hope to encourage people to get active. If we live in a democratic society, it depends on everyone being active. I hope that people will become active on some level and fight the kind of right-wing racism that is becoming so prevalent in our societies today.
QL: You left religion out of your documentary. Was that intentional?
MC: I very intentionally left out religion from the documentary, because, first of all there was a mix of religions in the group I traveled with, and that, to me represents Syria. People aren’t leaving Syria because they are Christian or Sunni. They are leaving Syria because there is a war that affects everybody. And second of all, the sectarianism, these inter-religious conflicts, is not something ancient in the region - it’s something new. I don’t think it was necessary to highlight that in this story and also, I don’t want people to say, “oh he or she is like that because of his or her religion.”
I also asked the people in the film, I left the decision up to them, I asked them directly, “Are you practicing? Is that something I should highlight or not?” People chose that it was not something that necessarily needed to be highlighted. And at the end of the day, the thing they identified most as is Syrian.
QL: So in your documentary what you want to highlight is family instead of religion?
MC: The documentary is a story about a family that has been torn apart by conflicts and the difficult journey that a father and a mother have to make in order to reunite, to make the family whole again. I think it is really important to break it down to the simplest level, especially with how much coverage we’ve had of the refugee stories in the past year. Like Aboud said in the film, he didn’t even want to go to Europe. As Americans, or as Europeans, we think everyone wants to come to our countries. But I am American; I chose to live in the Middle East for twelve years. I love it over there. The pace of life, the culture, the warmth, we don’t have that in Western Europe or in America. There’s something extremely nice and hard to describe about these places. It is a really nice place to live. I would never have left, if I didn’t have to. I am not a refugee, but I wish I could continue staying there. I would have continued to live there if I felt that it was still a safe and sustainable place for a journalist to live, but it’s becoming difficult for me for the same reasons that people had to flee their homes. I think it is important to show that these aren’t people who are coming to Europe because they want “the amazing things that we have.” They are coming because we have security and safety. They want the possibility to live away from conflicts.
QL: How do you think we should deal with the refugee crisis today?
MC: The conversation now surrounding the refugee crisis is not based on facts. One side says this, the other side says that. And everyone just ignores the evidence. So I think in order to have a real conversation, I think that European states need clear policies now, especially in the past few months since they closed their borders. In the so-called “democratic states,” there needs to be a conversation that the entire population should become engaged in. In order to do that people need to be better informed. My job as a journalist is just to provide some information, and to provide a document of people like Aboud and others, so that people can better understand the situation. Then they can and actively take part in the discussion about how to deal with this issue, whether it be how to welcome refugees, and how to help integrate them into the new societies, or more importantly, how to put an end to the conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. How do we prevent people from killing so they have no other choice but to leave their homes? Like I said, most people wouldn’t make that decision if they had another option. But with all the racism and polarization, we are very far away from having those real concrete conversations that we should be having.
More information on Matthew and his work can be found on his website: www.justimage.org
BLYNKT will host a screening of The Journey to Europe at Princeton University in October 2016, where Matthew will present and discuss his documentary. This will be followed by a panel discussion on the refugee crisis.
A more in-depth conversation with Matthew about the process of making this documentary and his views on the refugee crisis will be available on the BLYNKT podcast now.