This Refugee Documentary Series is Unlike Anything You've Seen
If you do one thing this weekend, binge-watch this series.
To my mind, there are two kinds of empathy in movies. The first, endemic to narrative fiction films, involves experiencing characters as real people. Their lives transcend the screen; after the scene ends, they're still there, sitting on the bed, left with the thunderous silence of their thoughts. These characters matter to us because we feel like we know them. We see bits of ourselves in them—warts and all.
Then, there's the breed of empathy that's specific to the living, breathing people found in documentary. A great doc will chip away at your subjectivity; you'll find yourself immersed in a life. Your emotional bandwidth will stretch to accommodate different wavelengths of the human experience.
Matthew Cassel's The Journey to Europe belongs to this immersive second type of empathy. While watching the six-part series chronicling a refugee and his family's escape from Syria, I began replacing Aboud Shalhoub's family, friends, and loved ones' faces with those from my own life. Forced to flee a war-torn country, leave his family behind, and make life-threatening journeys seeking asylum in Europe, this Syrian jeweler's experiences greatly differ from my own. But Cassel helped me bridge the gap.
The Journey's immersive empathy stems from the access—and resulting intimacy—that Cassel was able to achieve by embedding himself in Aboud's journey. Aboud had been away from his family for two years when he and Cassel met; Cassel followed him for the next eight months. The two risked their lives traveling by foot, bicycle, and sea from Turkey to Greece to Macedonia, where they spent 17 days walking across the Balkans to the holy grail of the European Union.
"I didn't get a crew together; I didn't have any money; I just did all this on my own."
No Film School spoke to the filmmaker just as he was preparing to move from Istanbul to Athens. "The situation here in Turkey is kind of tough for freelancers," he said. "Athens is a bit more comfortable; we don't have to worry about getting kicked out of the country."
Binge-watch the entire six-part series, starting with the first episode, on YouTube (below) or via the New Yorker's website.
No Film School: How did you meet Aboud?
Cassel: I've been reporting in the Middle East, I speak Arabic, and I live in Istanbul. I'm connected to the Syrian community here. I actually knew a lot of them before the war started. They all came to Istanbul. I met Aboud through them.
NFS: When did you decide to follow his journey?
Cassel: He approached me because he wanted some practical information. When they went by land from Turkey to Greece, they wanted to know if I, as an international journalist, had contacts at the UN so they could call them when they got to Greece to prevent them from being arrested and sent back. That actually happened, but I wasn't there to film it. You can see in Part One how they get caught and returned. That was Aboud's fourth attempt to get to Europe.
"I didn't know the entire time what would happen one day to the next."
[After meeting Aboud], I was amazed by the stories he was telling me. In the middle of winter, he tried to walk through Bulgaria in the snow. And then he told me that he didn't even want to go to Europe. The only reason he was going through this difficult, humiliating, tiring journey was because it was the only way to be with his wife and two kids. I didn't have any plan to make a film. I was just amazed and inspired by this father who was so motivated to be with this family.
I went to his house as he was preparing to go on this Greece trip. I happened to have my camera with me. They were wrapping their legs in plastic wrap, and I was like, "What the hell are you doing?" They said they needed to do that to cross the river. I asked if I could start filming. One thing led to another and I just decided to follow this guy and see where it goes. I didn't know the entire time what would happen one day to the next. I didn't know he was going to eventually make it to Greece. He could have been stuck in Turkey or Greece for years. I just got stuck in this story. I was amazed by his courage and motivation to be with this family.
NFS: Throughout the seven months of the journey, were you living with him and experiencing everything together?
Cassel: On the trip, yes, I was. I did 98% of the same trip he did, except for a couple parts where we had to split up. When he got to Amsterdam, he went to an asylum center, so obviously I wasn't with him at that point. We were together almost all of the time.
NFS: Did you ever feel like your own life was in jeopardy?
Cassel: At the end of the day, I knew that I had something very valuable—and very unjust—in my pocket: my American passport. I knew it would protect me, especially in European countries, in ways that it wouldn't protect the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and Yemenis. Knowing what they were risking, I felt that my risks were very minimal comparatively. I was willing to take risks to be able to be with them and witness what they were going through.
"There were so many shots to get, and I just wish I could have set up a tripod and focused more on the aesthetics."
NFS: What were your biggest concerns for the project itself?
Cassel: Once I started filming, there was a risk of thieves and police because we were traveling in remote areas with roads known to be dangerous. I was constantly worried about losing my gear; even more than that, I was worried about losing the footage that I'd filmed.
But the biggest concern was definitely the safety and well-being of the people I was traveling with. Aboud and his friends were mostly young, and they were pretty fit and in shape, but once we got those two girls, which you see in Part Two, we all took on a different mentality. We didn't want anything bad to happen to them. In the bigger group, there were also elderly people, sick people, and people with disabilities.
NFS: What were you carrying around, gear-wise?
Cassel: I wish I had had more money and had planned it better. I did have a Canon C100 Mark II, which is a fantastic camera, but it was big. I took a small lighting kit but I couldn't use it once throughout the trip because I would have risked exposing the location of the group and getting them in trouble with the police or thieves. Sometimes I couldn't take the camera out of the bag because I didn't want to appear to be a journalist when we were in sticky situations, so I had to use my iPhone to film. I also had a little Sony Action Cam that I used for a couple shots.
NFS: Was your priority getting the shot, or did you ever have a chance to think about aesthetics?
Cassel: There's so much beauty in Macedonia. That's the country we had to experience intimately because we walked through it for days. We slept in the farmlands, bathed in the rivers, and cycled through it. There were so many shots to get, and I just wish I could have set up a tripod and focused more on the aesthetics. That was really impossible because I was part of the group. Their concerns were also my concerns. I basically just had to bust out the camera and film whenever possible. It was also hard because we were exhausted, walking all day in the baking hot sun, we didn't have water, and then I had to film. The shots aren't quite as steady or beautiful as I would have liked to have made them. It was more just about taking the camera and pointing it at something that was happening.
"Syrians will always tell me, 'I didn't want this. This was something that happened to us that was outside our control. This could really happen to anyone.'"
I was also worrying about media; I didn't have a computer, so I couldn't media manage. Also, batteries were a problem. I would turn the camera on, film for ten seconds, and turn it off right away just to conserve juice. I didn't get to charge for the first three or four days.
NFS: How much footage did you have in the end?
Cassel: I'm embarrassed to say, but I never properly logged all of it. I don't know how many hours. But a lot. I shot over thirteen months.
NFS: The editing was particularly stunning. The pacing was lively; even through all the waiting and uncertainty, it kept me on my toes. How was collaborating with the editor, Olivia Dehez?
Cassel: We know each other. We've worked together in the past. We both do everything: shoot, produce, edit. She gets it. She was really invaluable to the process. I was so intimate with the story, so close to everything that was happening, that she really added so much. She was able to look at the footage from a different perspective.
NFS: You were also coordinating with Simon Safieh in Damascus, who was able to film Aboud's wife, Christine, with their children. How did you engineer this partnership?
Cassel: He shot for a few days in Damascus. Actually, he shot one of the most important scenes in the movie, when Christine was leaving home and saying goodbye to her family, in Part 5. He was a friend of friend. Filming in Syria is very tough. Damascus is under government control, so it would have been hard for me to get a visa, and I was worried about bringing attention to the family.
NFS: At a recent screening, Laura Poitras said you cold-called her Field of Vision team. What happened, exactly?
Cassel: There was an article in the LA Times about six months ago and a friend of mine suggested emailing Laura Poitras. Field of Vision has been absolutely great. Their notes have helped shape the narrative. I can't speak highly enough about the collaboration between us. They all had different perspectives, whether as filmmakers or industry people.
NFS: Was there a specific piece of feedback that changed the course of the film?
Cassel: The thing we struggled with most was Part 1. I didn't start filming, like I said, with a documentary in mind. I didn't get a crew together; I didn't have any money; I just did all this on my own. It was really hard to build up the drama in the first episode because the footage we had was so thin. They really helped. Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5, we're really on a journey, so that easier. In any film, the hardest part is the beginning.
NFS: Was there anything you experienced or learned about the daily life of refugees that you wish everyone in Western society would know?
Cassel: So much. I made the trip early on—I was the first journalist to make the entire trip through the Balkans. I had finished the trip back in June, and July was when it started getting a lot of attention globally. Seeing the way that these people's stories—refugees, asylum seekers—were being told or not being told disappointed me and really upset me. I hate having to say this, because it should be so fundamental to our understanding, but these are people just like any of us. Syrians will always tell me, "I didn't want this. This was something that happened to us that was outside our control. This could really happen to anyone."
That's so true. My own family has a story of being refugees. My great-grandfather fled Eastern Europe by foot in the anti-Jewish pogroms of 100 years ago. My mom and her family members were watching Aboud's story unfold and they could really feel their family history. That kind of empathy for the people who are forced to make this trip is really crucial.
I'm glad I was given such trust to make this film. Thanks to them feeling comfortable with me, the film does humanize them. We understand who these people are. They want basically the same things that any of us want: security, life, and dignity.