Watani: My Homeland began as a documentary about Syria as seen through the eyes of its children. But that changed when one of its subjects, Abu Ali, the patriarch of a family living in war-torn Aleppo, was taken by ISIS soon after filming began in 2013. It was then that director Marcel Mettelsiefen focused on how Abu Ali’s wife, Hala — who witnessed her husband’s capture — and their four children coped with his absence and their resulting relocation to Germany.
The 40-minute film was nominated for a Best Documentary Short award at this year’s Oscars — and Hala will attend the ceremony to celebrate the nomination and pay tribute to her husband, who is presumed dead.
“The reason I agreed for my life to be filmed is so people can see the truth,” Hala, whose first language is Arabic but speaks English for this interview, says. “I am safe with my children now, but I want the other families to also be safe … All of us, we are one family in this world. And when anybody from this family has suffering or pain or anything, we must help. This is my message.”
Mettelsiefen, a German filmmaker who knew Abu Ali before he started filming Watani in 2013 thanks to his previous reporting work in the Middle East, tells EW that the documentary became a story about “a strong Muslim woman who has to make very difficult decisions” after Abu Ali’s abduction — including a relocation to Germany.
“You would think that she’s happy,” Mettelsiefen, who points out that Hala has a house in Germany and had a relatively smooth journey there, says. “But the most important and deep moment for me was when I realized that she never, ever wanted to leave her country. If she would have had a choice, she would have stayed. I think this proves that people are not coming in order to abuse a wealthier system; people come because there is no choice.”
Leaving was especially hard for Hala given her and her husband’s commitment to protecting her country: Abu Ali was a commander in the Free Syrian Army, a group dedicated to defeating the violent Assad government.
“It’s so, so hard. I hope to have some medicine to forget everything. After this, life will be so good,” she says before bringing up Abu Ali. “My husband was everything in my life — my friend, my family. I loved him. And then in front of my eyes, they take him, and I can’t do anything.”
“I feel I am not a human,” she continues. “I am a machine. But I must complete this life with my children. I lost everything, but I don’t want to lose the future of my children.”
The film feels particularly relevant now given President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration that indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States and claimed “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States.” That order — titled Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States — was signed Jan. 27 and met with resistance from protesters and groups like the ACLU, who, in a Jan. 28 blog post, called it “a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who uphold our best traditions of welcoming the stranger seeking refuge.”
The order was later temporarily blocked, most recently by a federal appeals panel Feb. 9. Since then, the Trump administration has been working on a new order that should be revealed soon, though it’s currently unclear what this revised version will mean for Syrian refugees.
“The biggest irony is that Syrian refugees are being blamed as terrorists although those very same refugees are fleeing radical Islamists,” Mettelsiefen says. “They should be rescued, but they’re being put in the same box.”
He’s hopeful, though, that Americans will continue to fight xenophobic policies. “I see a country where people are standing up, and taking a very firm political position and who are verbalizing this is not their policy,” he notes. “The movement started and I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
Watani: My Homeland is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer above.