Matthew Cassel has reported on the Middle East for over a decade, including a five-year stint covering the Arab world for Al Jazeera. Living and working in Istanbul, he saw the rising tide of refugees making their way to Europe in 2014. But as he noted in an interview with Field Notes, traditional news outlets were slow to recognize the gravity of the crisis. While coverage existed, media attention didn’t intensify “until Alan Kurdi, who was the young poor kid from Kobaní, inside Syria, washed up on the shore in Turkey — if you remember that iconic image from September of 2015,” he said. “But there were people who were dying, people who were struggling to get to Europe before that.”
Among the more than 1 million people to undertake that journey was Aboud Shalhoub, a Syrian jeweler whom Cassel met in Istanbul. From Turkey to Greece, and through Eastern Europe to the Netherlands, Cassel made the migration with Shalhoub, creating a six-part documentary film recorded over an eventful and tumultuous year. Produced by Field of Vision in collaboration with The New Yorker, The Journey can be viewed here. Reached via Skype in Istanbul, Cassel talked about meeting and growing close to Shalhoub, the importance of telling a parallel narrative of Shalhoub’s family in Damascus, and the value of long-form, ground-level reporting inside itinerant communities.
How did you come to make a film about Aboud Shalhoub? Did you meet organically or were you explicitly looking for a subject to follow?
Matthew Cassel: I live in Istanbul and speak Arabic, and have lived among Syrians and Palestinians and other refugee communities in this region for a very long time. Last year I knew something big was going on, because so many of my Syrian friends in Istanbul were looking for a way out. I was working somewhat regularly for an outlet and tried to pitch numerous stories on Syrian refugees, but there was very little interest among editors, especially those based in the U.S. and Europe. Then I met this guy Aboud. He’s a father trying to make a living for himself in Turkey, working as hard as he can and barely making enough to support himself, let alone his two kids and wife back in Syria. He couldn’t go back to Syria, so he felt his only option was to travel to Europe and apply for asylum and then family reunification. That was the only way he could be with his family. My bosses weren’t really interested in the story, but I was interested in Aboud — I was amazed by his motivation and what he was willing to do to be with his family. So I was like, fuck it — I picked up a camera and started filming with him, and kind of self-funded for the first four or five months. I had no idea, and he had no idea, what would happen one day to the next, and I just got deeper and deeper into it with him until we crossed the whole Balkans by foot.
Did Aboud have a sense that his story was representative of a larger phenomenon? Did he understand the significance of what your making a film about his story could mean?
Cassel: I don’t think so. He’s just one guy. He didn’t see himself representing a bigger trend or anything like that. He’s Syrian, he loves Syria like most Syrians do, and he wanted to stay close to Syria. But he knew, like many Syrians, that he couldn’t go back, and just had this very clear objective to get to a place where he could be with his wife and his kids. And he took it one step at a time until he eventually made it there.
I guess I’m still curious about what you discussed with Aboud in terms of your plans for the film, and why he let you into his life.
Cassel: I don’t know if he was crazy about being on camera or anything — I mean, you always have to question why someone agrees to be filmed. Is it because they want their face on camera, or want their story told, or want help? The way I actually met Aboud was that he was introduced to me through a mutual friend. [Aboud and his brother] were trying to go to Greece, and they came to me because I’m a foreigner and journalist and they thought I might have connections with the U.N. in Greece and help prevent them from being sent back by border guards. Which eventually did happen. I think maybe Aboud and the guys who were with him knew — and rightfully so — that if there was an American journalist with them it would provide some kind of protection if they were to get arrested by border guards. That it could prevent them from being abused or detained and sent back or whatever.
It’s one thing to have an intimacy with Aboud, with whom you wound up spending many months, but during that journey there seems to have been an incredible ease between you and the rest of the emigres as well. The camera just seems to be there.
Cassel: This is how I feel journalism should really be done. You feel like you’re actually practicing real journalism when you can be so close to people as opposed to just getting a sound bite. I completely immersed myself in this group of people and followed them. What helped the camera disappear for the group is that I was doing the trip, just as they were. Sure, I’m an American, I have all kinds of privilege, and my motivations for doing the trip were not the same motivations they had. I’m not trying to claim in any way that I was one of them. But in a sense I was, because I was going through the same hardships that they were. We were sleeping together in farmlands, we were bathing in rivers together, we were getting food from gas stations and were worried about getting arrested by police. I think some people were skeptical of me, but for the core of the group, and the group that I spent a lot of time with, I just became one of the travelers in their group, and I happened to have a camera with me.
There were no other crew members?
Cassel: I did it all on my own.
When did the Damascus part come into it, and how did you manage and orchestrate footage that you weren’t there to film?
Cassel: That was something crucial, because I didn’t want to focus only on the journey. I wanted to tell a full picture of this family. We’ve heard a lot about the journey from various news reports since 2015, what people go through. But for me the most crucial part of this story is the family reunification process. That’s what’s motivating Aboud to do it. People accuse refugees and migrants of coming to Europe to take jobs, or to take money from the rich European states, but for Aboud it was nothing like that. Aboud wanted to get there because he saw it as the only viable option for reuniting with his wife and two kids. So to do this story properly I had to film this bigger story, and that meant also filming in Damascus. For me to get a visa to Damascus would have been very difficult, so I ended up hiring a great young videographer, Simon Safieh, who was able to film with the family. One of the most important parts of the entire series is when we see Christine and the two kids, Joseph and Natalia, leaving home in Episode 5, and saying goodbye to their family. We don’t often get to see how difficult a decision it is for people coming from Damascus — which is an ancient city, one of the oldest in the world — to just get up and go to rural Netherlands. Do you think people want to leave Damascus where they’ve lived for 2,000 plus years and just move? Of course they don’t, so it’s a very difficult choice. It’s really crucial to understand who these refugees and economic migrants coming to Western countries are, and what they’re leaving behind.
Those scenes really are crucial. You get a chance to see that they have a life there, they have a home, which they’re giving up for such uncertainty and often danger. I also love the meaningful banality of him talking about adjusting to the cold and worrying about Christine leaving the warmth of their homeland.
Cassel: I’ve been to many towns in rural Netherlands and Germany and Sweden over the course of the past year, following different families and people who I’ve met along the way. I’ve also been to Damascus many times. And I can tell you that if I had the choice — and no offense against Northern Europe — but I would definitely choose Damascus over, you know, Voorthuizen, Netherlands. I think Aboud would too, but circumstances are beyond his control.
In the fifth episode there’s talk about how much Aboud has changed over the 2 1/2 years he and Christine have been apart, and I wonder what you felt as that evolved, having never met Christine, and having seen the ways Aboud had adjusted to life on his own.
Cassel: I was really nervous about it for them. I mean, this is almost three years of them not seeing each other, and people change over time. Aboud never lived during the uprising and the war and all of that, and Christine was in the heart of it, while Aboud was on his own trying to make a life in Istanbul. I was on the plane with the family before we reconnected with Aboud, and I was thinking: “What’s going to happen when Aboud sees his wife, when he sees his two kids?” When you think about leaving your two children who were around 5 and 2 1/2 the last time you saw them, to not see them for three years, that’s just incredible. No parent should have to go that long without seeing their kids. So it was really hard holding the camera when Aboud finally got to embrace his young daughter and his young son for the first time. They’re different people, you know? They’re probably twice the size that they were when he last saw them. Thankfully I had a second camera person there because I was really struggling to hold the camera steady at that moment — it was very emotional for everyone.
The footage incorporates people in the background at the airport smiling, or just glancing over at the reunion, and I couldn’t help but think that they have no idea what the story is. We see reunions like that every day, and we never know what led people there.
Cassel: After being part of that incident, I now look at families and people waiting and saying goodbye at airports and wonder more about their own stories.
How did you come to shape the film into six chapters and conceive of doling out footage episodically?
Cassel: I’ve worked for a lot of TV outlets that have very structured, fixed formats. But I know that my peers and friends, and especially people younger than me, aren’t relying on TV as much as they once did for news. I love when content is available for free online to whoever has an internet connection. It can be played whenever you sit down at your computer — you don’t have to wait for 8 o’clock on BBC, CBS, or CNN. I’m not interested in TV or distribution or film festivals or anything, I just want the film to go online so everyone can watch it. So the episodic format I think works better for people who are going to sit down and watch 10 or 12 minutes instead of putting in an hour and 20. I think the episodic format works better for that.
I watched it in one sitting, which helped me to see and feel the full arc of the journey. But I could also appreciate how each episode has a shape and thematic thrust of its own.
Cassel: At the end it’s still one narrative. We’d decided on the episodic [structure] after I’d filmed most of it so it was more about editing the episodes down and giving them a unique identity apart from the one before and after. Although if it weren’t an episodic film we might not have done Episode 6. We added this other episode to give more of a contextual picture of what’s happening in Europe at the moment with the rise of the far right, with the attacks on refugees.
Episode 6 also sees us revisit the woman with her daughters we’d met on the journey. Had you been in touch with her throughout?
Cassel: Yeah, those two girls are so important to me. They changed the group dynamic. Before those two girls came it was a group of guys 35 and younger, and everyone’s kind of macho and whatnot. Then these two little girls join the group and turned us into this group of caring uncles. We all felt a responsibility to look out for them. Those two girls are so amazing. I never lost contact with them and I have no plan of ever going out of contact with them.
You can see how they change things in the film. They show up and there’s that moment of, “Oh, they might drag us down, this will make the journey harder,” but then seconds later they’re on everybody’s shoulders.
Cassel: They added so much levity to the journey. It was like, if these 5- and 6-year-old sisters aren’t complaining, how can the rest of us be complaining? They’re just laughing and having fun the whole time, and it was really a joy to have them on the trip. And their mother, Fadwa, is obviously very strong and brave for what she endured and what she did to get them to Sweden.
What’s it like to experience such depth of intimacy, over such a long time, and then publicly share it through your film?
Cassel: I’m very fortunate that I was able to spend time with people like Aboud, Christine, Fadwa and all of the others on the trip, getting close to them so I could tell their stories in an accurate and intimate way. I feel that for various reasons this has been lacking in the reporting of this issue. These are just a few people at the heart of the story, and they’re not necessarily the same as everyone else. I’m really happy that it’s going to be out there, that people are going to get to see at least a few individual stories and get a sense of who these people are, and why they’re making the trip.