Sketch for an opening scene:

A man with white hair and goatee prepares Turkish coffee over the stove. He fills two cups and sets them on the table near a window overlooking a well-kept garden. Morning glories hang down from the telephone wires and grape vines climb the fences separating his yard from the neighbors. In the grass below the window, birds gather to peck seed. «There were no birds where I grew up», he says, as he sets himself down at the table and takes a sip from his coffee. «They were all caught, killed and eaten.» He looks out the window, «They set up nets. Whole flocks migrating from North and South were caught and killed that way. Even the smallest sparrows.» He looks at me and says, «When I came here and saw the birds, I was overjoyed.»

December 27th, 2018

Detroit. It’s cold and rainy. The thin layer of snow that was covering the ground has melted overnight and turned to ice. Water covers the potholed road while small lakes stretch across the schoolyard and the vacant lot next to the house we’ve rented. The walls of the house are thin and the cold can’t be kept out by the hot air blowing vents in the floor. I’ve never understood this system of heating houses. Between the air vents and the eight lanes of traffic from Woodward Ave, there is a constant hum of noise. The sounds of the promise of a more modern life. I’ve come to Detroit on a research grant to begin writing my new film By the Reins, a story of a man who tries to take control of his life. But this proves challenging: he’s not the only one holding the reins. The film’s main character is H. Originally from Syria, H. left his home in 1967 just prior to the six-day war, to avoid serving in the military. Ending up in Windsor, Canada, he eventually moved across the river to Detroit, USA, where he still lives today, 50 years later. I have multiple interviews scheduled with H. while I’m here. I’m eager to get started as he is not completely on board yet. There is a lot of red tape around the story of his life and he doesn’t feel free to speak about it on film: the circumstances of his leaving Syria at the age of 17 never to return; his relationship with his younger brother, a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army; implicating his family who still live in Syria by anything he might say; and finally, H.’s post-9/11 work for the US state department is contractually taboo. So how do I draw a picture of a person whose story is so redacted?

My relationship with Detroit is not simple: I grew up here, and Detroit has been a place of relevance in three of my films, and now again in this current one. What is it that draws me back to this place again and again? Maybe it’s the familiar emptiness. A feeling of belonging and not belonging. Something like home. But there are so many Detroits. When I first lived abroad, people asked me about the techno and electronic music scene in Detroit. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about it growing up here in the 80s and 90s. As a Detroit native, I see it differently than most filmmakers and journalists coming here from the outside. I understand the fascination with its post-apocalyptic facade and its frontiersman-like appeal. I have close friends who have made Detroit a life project for the last 30 years, planting trees throughout the city. They have revived a whole city block with other like-minded pioneers on a street that feels like a 1960s hippie commune. No one locks their house or car, they have planted gardens in the vacant house lots, and have farm animals. But this is not the Detroit in this film. The Detroit I knew growing up, and the Detroit that I still see behind its current hyped renaissance is a damn tough place to live. When I first moved away from Detroit at the age of 17, I vowed never to come back. A promise I make myself each time I return. I feel this promise on the tip of my tongue even now and I’ve only been here a few days. I push this feeling down as I know I am here not for myself, but to research this city through the eyes of a 20-year-old Syrian man who spoke only broken English when he arrived in the summer of 1968, one year after race riots divided the city. The US Army and National Guard were called in. Whole sections of the city burned down. There were casualties on all sides.

I get in my rental car and drive down Woodward Ave towards H.’s house. Woodward Ave is one of the main north/south throughways in Detroit and divides the city into east and west. In the 1950s and 60s, young people cruised in their iconic cars up and down the avenue showing off and racing. My mother grew up here at that time and I imagine her in this scene, with her black hair ironed straight, wearing a short skirt. I picture a James Dean-like boyfriend, hair slicked back, showing her off like a trophy as they cruise down Woodward Ave pulling up to the carhop, ordering root beer sodas. It’s all about being seen. Everything I know about H. is the opposite. He is about not being seen.

Woodward Ave today lacks any resemblance to how it looked then. There is nothing and no one to see here now. Pharmacies, car washes, shopping plazas with sporting goods stores and gun and rifle shops line both sides of the eight-lane avenue. There are no pedestrians. No one would think to walk here. Only endless highways and parking lots. Suddenly, the cars ahead of me brake as the drive-thru line at a Starbucks coffee floods into the street. But traffic hardly slows as it fluidly changes lanes, like a raging river absorbing a rock slide.

As I drive further south down Woodward Ave, the scene becomes more desolate: liquor stores, boarded up windows, and burned down buildings. Garbage covers the streets. When I finally reach the Detroit River, I see Windsor, Canada, on the other side. When H. arrived in Windsor, two years after leaving Syria, the city gave him free English classes, college courses and he earned a degree. Why would he cross the river to Detroit? What did this place offer him? I turn left into a residential neighborhood. There are old maple and elm trees lining the streets. It is surprisingly calm. H.’s small two-story house is friendly and quiet. Between the many bookshelves hang framed pictures of poets, spiritual leaders, and philosophers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Henry David Thoreau. H. practices meditation, is a vegetarian and a pacifist.

I sit down at the small table in the kitchen. H. heats water over the stove. Rather than making Turkish coffee as he usually does, he prepares instant. It’s been some years since we’ve seen each other. Are there other discrepancies in his character? I note in my journal H. = instant ≠ Turkish. Looking out the window of my imagined opening scene, the garden in winter looks bleak and joyless. There are a few sparrows pecking seeds. Ask H. about birds, I write. The first sketches for my script are based on memories of conversations I have had with H. spanning over many years. They are for me honest accounts of who he was and the wonder that I felt for his courageous decisions and their consequences. As he stirs powdered coffee into cups of hot water, I wonder now how much of his story I actually got right, and how much – through time passing and memory softening – I might have contrived. At the same time, I wonder about H.’s reliability as the teller of his own story. Not his memory. This is flawless – he can recall any detailed name, date or event from his life. Rather, there is something else that holds him back and I wonder what that is. Modesty? Fear? Government contracts? I watch him as I consider this. He places two cups of coffee that only resemble coffee on the table in front of us. H. looks out the window with sharp, perceptive dark eyes, then at me. Stroking his white goatee with his hand he waits for me to begin. I take out a camera. «It’s for transcription purposes», I explain. H. recommends we move to his office, the «sun room», he calls it, a glassed-in veranda, and a seemingly new addition to the house. There is a small desk with a laptop. A US Government emblem shines on the screen. H. closes the laptop and sits on the sofa, offering me a chair. The lighting here is cool and diffused. He gives me a blanket. The sun room is not heated.

Kaleo: I’m interested in talking about your childhood memories, growing up in Syria. Also about your journey, your trip here. Things currently in the US political climate for you. Off the bat, is there anything that you don’t wish to talk about?

H: OK, as we go along if there is something I don’t wish to talk I’ll just not mention it. Will that be OK?

K: That’s fine.

H: Where would you like us to start, what would you like me to say?

K: Maybe you can tell me about where you were born?

H: I was born in a small village in southern part of Syria.

K: What was the name of the village?

H: You want the name of the village? I was born in ■■■■■■■■.

K: How big was the village?

H: Well, close to maybe 500 people in those days. Right now it is more like a town instead of a village.

K: What was it like growing up there?

H: Life was very simple. We had no electricity. No running water. Even when I left the village there still was no running water, or electricity. Things were very basic. We had no luxury over there. And we did what we could to enjoy life.

Kaleo: And your family?

H: We were three sisters and three brothers, and father, mother. We lived in a small house. A full house. And we had animals: goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, and we had geese also. We always had enough and we hardly bought anything.

K: A small house you said?

H: Yes, two rooms.

K: Where did everybody sleep?

H: In the summertime some of us would sleep on the roof and it was fun. The skies were so clear and we would see thousands of stars and it was very very unique and memorable just to look up there and fall asleep while gazing at the stars. Life was nice then.

K: And what was your relationship like with your siblings?

H: All in all it was fine. At times, it was maybe not good with some of them, but that’s part of life so I dealt with it.

K: Who in particular?

H: ■■■■■. I will call him M. He was very masterful and he was domineering also. He wanted things his own way, and at times he was very strict. So, it was not always easy dealing with him. He loved me in particular. And I, you know, I feared him. He left Syria in 1961 after he served in the army. Things were financially difficult for father and according to him, he wanted to help. So, he went to Columbia, Panama and then to Canada. And that’s where I met him, after I left Syria. He helped me, and that’s a different story.

K: You once told me a story about a brother who would put cayenne on your hands…

H: Did I tell you that? That must have been M. I think he was trying to teach us a certain lesson... He hit us and made us cry. And then we started wiping our tears and we got the cayenne he had put on our hands in our eyes. I don’t want really for the viewers of this movie to, uh, can I talk like that?

K:You can say anything you want.

H: … Yeah, I don’t really want them to have any negative feelings toward M. in particular. I love him dearly, regardless of what he, I know I went through a lot, especially later in Canada, but still, there was a genuine heart connection, we loved each other, somehow, it was beyond his will sometimes the way he acted toward me.

K: Just to explain, I think it’s good that you say how you feel about it today, but it’s also important for storytelling that you go through the development of how it was, so to end up at today, so it’s good to have details…

H: Right, details. OK.

K: … A story begins one way and then it goes through different ups and downs, and then ends in a different place than it began. A development. Your brother for example, before you reconciled, you maybe felt differently about him before that, no?

H: That’s right. There was a time when I thought: OK, this is the end of it, it’s best if we don’t see each other again. Let me go back to when we were in Syria, and M. was around, and I mentioned that he was a very caring brother, but M. had a strong personality, and sometimes I was forced to lie just to avoid punishment.

K: It’s getting dark.

H: How are we doing?

K: One last question for today. What about your younger brother?

H: ■■■■■ and I were very close. He was very very very good at school. Very smart. Always first. He went to the army at a young age and reached a very high rank. He retired in 2011, and now he lives near Damascus.

K: Do you communicate?

H: He visited here once in the 1980s. He was a lieutenant general at that time.

K: So did he have a lot of influence in the current civil war?

H: I really don’t know. We never discussed his life in the army. I was just interested in his personal life. Beyond that I didn’t care to ask.

K: OK. That’s maybe a good stopping place for today.

H: As you wish. Are you satisfied with how it went?

Kaleo: Yeah, is that OK with you?

H: Yeah. That’s fine.

It’s dark outside when I leave H.’s house. I turn left heading north up Woodward Ave. A car wash sign flashes yellow and green arrows. But where is the car wash? When I left Detroit, I dreamt of living in a place less dysfunctional. Why did H. stay here all these years? Zürich, Switzerland, where I live, is the opposite of Detroit. It’s green, there are parks and places to swim. I hear a rooster crow in the morning. My apartment is close to a forest by a small mountain. I can walk to my office in the city and get on a train to anywhere in Europe. I do not own a car. Detroit’s relationship to the automobile was torturous to me as a kid. And when I’m back here, that trauma sinks in. I remember driving half an hour to school each morning and then half an hour back home. There was constant construction on the multilane highway. I thought that it would end one day. It made perfect sense to me, that one day the streets would be fixed and the traffic jams would ease, and all would be whole again and fine.

I drive up eight-lane Woodward Avenue away from the emptiness of the city center. Sidewalks appear and disappear along the avenue without any apparent system or logic. Did the city planners never think that people might have the impulse to walk or ride a bike? Detroit, ‹The Motor City›, is home to the three largest car manufacturers in the US: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. Public policies encouraged a car culture, with money being invested in building highways rather than a public transportation system. The lobbying power of these companies is visible in the city’s decaying infrastructure: potholed mega-highways, vacant decaying car factories, and railway stations with shattered windows, abandoned decades ago. The vision seemed to be that everyone should purchase and drive their own car in the city where American cars were built, and local politics supported the vision. But as the auto industry and its production moved away, the economy dwindled and the city emptied. Over the last 60 years, the city has declined to almost a third of its size and since I left in the early 1990s, it has dropped from 1.1 million to 667,000. That absence is very tangible. Where whole city blocks once stood there are now empty fields littered with trash. Nearby vacant factory lots are surrounded by barbed-wire fences – fencing in what? Emptiness? Some blocks still have rows of skeleton houses burned down by arsonists at some point over the past 40 years. It’s almost as if H. ended up back in a war zone.

January 2nd, 2019

Kaleo: You said a couple of things the other day, some of your concerns.

H: Oh. Do I have to say that about my concerns?

K: It would be good because then I would have them recorded and noted.

H: No. I prefer not to record that.

K: Then let me say what I recall what your concerns were. We talked about the film if it were to be critical or not…

H: Yes, that’s correct, I do not want anything critical about this country here. That’s important. Because I live in this country and I love this country, and this country provided me many opportunities and I’m grateful. I have always felt that way and I will continue to as long as I live in this beautiful country.

K: So you understand, I’m just going to repeat this again, that um, in documentary or a fictionalization if we are doing that, you are allowed to have your points of view…

H: Sure.

K: ... And they don’t necessarily reflect the film’s point of view, right? So if you say that you don’t want to be critical of this country, at this place in time, it’s not my motivation to try and make you critical of this country. Also that you, your character in the film, can be non-critical, even if the film at times is critical. Do you get the difference?

H: Well, ah…

K: So the director of the film is me, right? So, if I bring up certain things or certain issues, that might seem critical, they don’t necessarily reflect your views.

H: I don’t necessarily agree with you. I am at liberty to say that I do not agree, if you choose to voice those views. Because I am involved in this movie here.

(I glance at my notes … H. worked in a tire storage facility downtown in the 1980s. A work colleague attacked him verbally, calling him «Arab», and telling him to «go back to where he came from». One day at work, H. was punched in the face. When he woke up in the hospital, his jaw was broken and wired shut. For two months, he could only eat liquid foods through a straw. He never saw who hit him but knew who it was.)

K: OK, I would like to talk a little bit about your work for the state department. Can you describe what you do?

H: I really prefer not to as far as the content, it’s ah…

K: What could you describe then?

H: Well, whatever I am doing is for the help of humanity, basically, and I do not wish to elaborate further because I do not have permission to do so. The state department handles work for different departments in the country, and I do some of that work.

K: Also for the CIA?

H: I really can’t say more.

K: I’m wondering, was there ever an attempt to contact you by the Syrian government after you left?

H: No. None of that. No.

K: But you knew that you couldn’t go back?

H: OK, I knew if I would go back I would serve in the army. OK.

K: Or prison would be the other option?

H: Well, I don’t think I would have gone to prison, but then again... hmm. The thought never crossed my mind.

K: If jailed, how long is the sentence?

H: You will end up, I’m quite sure, you will end up serving in the army (big laugh).

After the interview, H. calls me with further concerns. He doesn’t want the name of the village to be mentioned, nor his name nor the names of his family. He is the only one from his village who ever went to America other than his brother M., and M. is dead. Also, he doesn’t want his marriage to a Jewish woman be a topic. Syrians, with their wars with Israel, would not understand. I’m surprised by his concerns. He’s lived away from Syria for so long, with no intention of returning to the region, even for a visit, why would he care what they thought? I think about the implications of his request on the film. I see two possible films taking shape: a fictionalization of H.’s story that would give me freedom to tell it without the red tape, or a documentary that incorporates redaction as a storytelling device. This question of genre is relevant, but how and when should it matter? I consider the two to be like filtered glasses an audience wears, fiction or documentary, as a key to decipher a story’s relationship to fact and truth. But this is dangerously misleading. There is truth in fiction and fiction in documentary. But where does this leave H. and me? How do I talk about emptiness?

January 4th, 2019

Kaleo :You were saying the other day that your not serving in the military wasn’t because of an ideological reason? I always thought you left because you wanted to avoid military service?

H: If my brother M. had not called for me to go to Canada, I would have stayed and served in the army, like anyone else. I did not make a conscious effort to flee the country…

K: That wasn’t your motivation?

H: No, that was coincidental pretty much. M. wrote me shortly before I was supposed to join the army and that’s when I left. OK.

K: It wasn’t because you were a pacifist?

H: No. One day, I got a letter from M. asking me to work on getting a passport. Then I started thinking seriously about leaving Syria. I could not get a visa from Syria to Canada, so I went to Lebanon. I stayed in Lebanon for 3 months waiting for papers. Nothing. And then, I thought of a cousin there who had been living in Beirut. I thought, let me go and just greet him, say hello to him. I told him that I tried everything to get a passport with no success. He said «I know somebody». Finally he said, «we got you a visa to Czechoslovakia. I’m sending someone with you». In Czechoslovakia we stayed for 21 days. I was given a visa for one month to Canada. That was quite something.

K: And then?

H: And then, when I got there, I called my brother. I had not had contact with him since I got the visa. He didn’t know that I was coming. So I called, and it was a beautiful moment. It was the first time I had heard his voice in 7 years. But I was in Montreal and he was in Windsor, 1000km away. I had no idea the distances were so great. I thought I could take a taxi. A security guard helped me make arrangements and I got on a plane to Toronto and then on to Windsor.

K: What year was that?

H: That was June of 1968. I was 20 years old.

Many years ago, I remember H. telling me of escaping Syria in the night because he didn’t want to do his military service for ideological reasons, that he had spent two years in Lebanon working as he waited for travel documents, and that he had to sneak into Czechoslovakia in an animal cargo plane. Had someone else told me this story? Did I dream it? Or has the story been revised, a kind of instinctual downplay to a more legal variation that would keep H. safe in his story? I am interested in being as accurate as possible, even if accuracy is redaction, or changing names and places to protect identities. I see this as a possible formal device in the film, another way of revealing truths. Perhaps the wild stories I recalled in the first draft of my script still contain some authenticity compared to the more controlled, official version I am hearing now. I also have my official stories of arriving in Switzerland as an American immigrant. The actual story of my arrival is a lot messier than bureaucrats and registry forms allow room for. Is H. telling a more moderate version because I am recording him with a camera? I accept that part of the truth to H.’s story lies in his self-redacted versions. Was it by chance that he left Syria at the same moment he received his military orders to serve in the army? Maybe. Maybe there are multiple truths at play.

The current US administration’s 2017 ‹Muslim ban›, or Executive Order 13769, suspended entry of Syrian refugees into the US indefinitely. H. is a Canadian citizen with a US green card. Because of the words «Origin: Syria» marked in his passport, it is unwise for him to travel over any border. Why then should he feel compelled to speak freely about his ideals or his political views? Under no circumstances do I want to put H. in danger, or expose him with this film in any way. Thinking about the current politics in the US and other right-leaning governments, for an immigrant to take a chance and reveal any truth about himself is unwise. So I think about the stories that I recall him telling me 20 years ago, and the version he told me for my research. What motivates the alterations? Or is it my memory that left me with projections of something far more dramatic? I have no real conclusion at the moment, except that I see in H.’s story a film that I feel compelled to make. The question of fiction or documentary I’ll leave open for now, but regardless of the genre, I will tell it accurately: the wild versions, the redacted versions and all.

Kaleo La Belle
*1973 in Maui, USA. Schweizerische und Amerikanische Staatsbürgerschaft. 1992-1996 University for Electronic Arts, Alfred, New York, Abteilung freie Kunst und Video. 1996 Bachelor of Fine Arts. 2002-06 HSLU (Hochschule Luzern, Design & Kunst), Abteilung Video. Arbeitet international als Regisseur und Kameramann.
(Stand: 2021)
[© cinemabuch – seit über 60 Jahren mit Beiträgen zum Schweizer Film  ]