“Syria Changed My Life:” An Interview with Marcel Mettelsiefen
Marcel Mettelsiefen was no stranger to conflict zones when he first traveled to Syria in 2011.
His work as a photojournalist had already taken him to Israel during the second intifada; Haiti during the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; Afghanistan in 2009; and Libya and Egypt as the Arab Spring began.
But what Mettelsiefen saw in the Syrian city of Aleppo inspired him to start telling stories in a different way: through the eyes of children.
“I met a 14-year-old boy who was working in a city hospital, helping to tend to the wounded,” Mettelsiefen says (the resulting short film aired in Great Britain). “Children in a war zone are so vulnerable, but I also saw such an incredible degree of resilience — and I decided I wanted to tell the stories of Syrian kids caught in this crisis in a really thoughtful, long-form way.”
That’s exactly what the Berlin-based Mettelsiefen, who trained as a doctor before becoming a full-time journalist, has done.
Filmed over three years, his FRONTLINE documentary Children of Syria is an intimate look at the Syrian war told through the eyes of four young Syrian children — Sara, 4; Farah, 7; Helen, 10; and Mohammed, 12 — as they go on to experience the siege of their city, grapple with the kidnapping of their father, and begin a new life as refugees in Germany.
From Farah’s ability to identify rockets versus tank shells by sound, to her younger sister Sara’s message for her father on the morning the family fled Syria, it’s a film that’s packed with moving and surprising moments. FRONTLINE spoke with Mettelsiefen about filming the family — and what he learned along the way. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you meet Sara, Farah, Helen and Mohammed and their parents, Hala and Abu Ali?
Since 2011, I had been traveling back and forth to Syria, covering the work of anti-regime activists. It was an unbelievably intense time, and they were risking their lives to meet with me — a lot of the rebels who had been in contact with journalists were either killed, or simply disappeared.
One of the activists I met was Abu Ali. By 2013, I knew I wanted to tell the story of kids who are experiencing Syria’s war up-close. Since Abu Ali was living in a suburb of Aleppo that had become a front line in the battle between the regime and the rebels, I asked him if he knew of any kids there. He said, “The only children are my children!” — his four kids and his wife, Hala, had stayed by his side rather than fleeing the fighting.
As soon as I met the kids, I knew I had found the best subjects anyone could imagine. Meeting them in Syria changed my life: I started filming then, and I’ve basically never stopped.
Was it difficult to build trust with such young subjects, in such a dangerous environment?
Actually, we clicked almost instantly, within minutes of meeting. The first portion of the film was filmed over just four days in fall of 2013 — I couldn’t stay any longer because it was too dangerous. But in those four days, we covered so much ground. What these kids had to say was just so poetic — I would film for eight hours without even noticing that so much time was passing. They were so generous in how they opened up to me and shared their lives and fears and dreams.
A short documentary made from what you filmed over those four days, Children of Aleppo, aired on FRONTLINE in February 2014. Did things feel different the next time you filmed with the kids?
The kids had seen the first documentary, and when I went back in July of 2014, they were definitely more aware that they were being filmed. That sometimes presented a challenge: The thing you want to become as a documentary filmmaker is invisible, and you’re not able to be quite as invisible anymore the second time around.
But the biggest change was really how Aleppo had deteriorated. Their father had been kidnapped. The situation surrounding them was total chaos, with regime barrel bombs devastating the city.
One night, I was inside with the family when I realized my camera was out of batteries. I went down to my car, which was in front of the building, to grab a battery out of my camera bag. Suddenly, a bomb exploded right next to me. So that moment in the film, where the kids are screaming and Hala says, “You didn’t used to get so scared” — they were panicking because they heard the explosion and thought I had been killed outside.
Seeing the kids so fearful at moments like that was a really tough part of making this film — balancing the journalistic obligation to document what’s happening, with the human impulse to offer comfort.
Did you return to Syria after that?
James Foley was killed the following month, and it was too dangerous for me to go back inside. I trained a Syrian cameraman to film with the family, and then I met up with them again once they had successfully crossed the border into Turkey.
The film shows the choices and struggles the family makes as they leave their homeland and try to start fresh. What surprised you the most along the way, as you followed their journey?
How poetic and poised and thoughtful the kids were, and how they found moments of joy in the middle of really tough situations. Even when barrel bombs were flattening parts of Aleppo, kids would still be kids, turning abandoned homes into playgrounds. It didn’t make it into the film, but one day, Mohammed found an abandoned swimming pool and had fun there with his cousins.
I was also amazed by the strength of Hala, the mother. We did more than 40 hours of interviews with her. As she says in the film, she and Abu Ali — who were both engineers before the war — had sacrificed so much for the revolution against Bashar al-Assad, only to see it become a two-front battle with ISIS. For her husband to be kidnapped was just devastating for her.
But as she says in the film, she had to stay strong for the sake of her kids. She had given so much to the revolution, and now, it was time to do whatever she could to give her children a future. It was so hard for her to leave Syria, but she believed that by escaping and giving her children the chance to learn and go to school and live, they’ll eventually be able to help rebuild the country.
What do you hope people will come away with after watching the film?
I hope the documentary puts a human face on the refugee crisis. The family’s crossing into Germany was far less fraught than a lot of the terrible stories we hear of refugees trying to reach Europe — like people drowning on overcrowded boats — but their experience in terms of leaving everything they knew behind and having to start over again is certainly representative.
I came away from making the film understanding that Hala would never have left Syria if it weren’t for wanting her kids to survive and have a chance at a better future. The family never would have chosen to flee — like many Syrians, they have such a huge connection to their country. It was a matter of pure survival.
I also hope people will come away moved by this family’s capacity for resilience and renewal. These children and their mother have shown me that human beings are very flexible to adapt to any kind of situation, even some of the most horrific ones you can imagine.