Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Elias Matar: I was born in Berkeley, California, where my father was finishing his doctoral degree. When I was two years old, we moved back to Syria, where my family is from. I grew in Damascus and later in the Mediterranean coastal city Latakia. For my whole childhood I was Syrian. Then at 17, I graduated high school and traveled to the United States to go to college.
The Syria I grew up in was a place of wonderment. I can remember walking in the early morning with my brother to school, down narrow cobblestone streets, the smell of the fresh bread in the air. I remember the school road trips to Basra Al Sham, the ancient Roman theater, and driving with my father to Palmyra, where I rode a camel for the first time. It’s not like that now.
Film Courage: How many languages do you speak?
Elias: I am fluent in both Arabic and English.
Film Courage: When did you discover filmmaking?
Elias: Even as a young boy, growing up in Syria, my passion was always cinema. Like everyone, I started out as a fan. Hong Kong action flicks, French New Wave, Russian dramas and Spaghetti Westerns, all became a source of education and escapism at my local fleapit theatre.
In the early seventies, my father bought me a Russian 8mm camera and a roll of film. I pointed the lens at everyday life in Syria, but during the war in 1973, possessing film footage of tanks and military personal didn’t go over well with the government. Not surprisingly, Syrian authorities confiscated my first film. I was nine.
Film Courage: What prompted you to attend night school?
Elias: I attended nighttime acting school at AFI. I thought to better understand the language of directing, it was important to understand the language of acting. At the time, I was in my late thirties with a wife and two kids and running my own small business.
Film Courage: Have you always made documentary films?
Elias: I’ve dabbled in documentaries early in my career but I didn’t fully embrace it until recently. I shot two short documentaries, “By Any Means Necessary” and “Restoring the Spirit of Los Angeles”. Both were an expression of different art and culture in Los Angeles. But for the most part, my focus has been on fictional, narrative features.
Then, in 2015 I traveled to the Balkans to film “Flight of the Refugees” a documentary that followed the refugees’ exodus from Syria into Europe. Making that film changed my life forever. Not only as a filmmaker but also as a human being. I realized that, through film, I could be a portal into their world. I was entrusted to share their stories with the world and that was bigger then myself.
“When I was filming “Flight of the Refugees” in the Balkans, I kept hearing these horrifying stories about the difficult journey that people were making across the Aegean Sea. Something took possession of me. I needed to meet this beast.”
Filmmaker, Elias Matar of EXODUS
Film Courage: Why did you make EXODUS?
Elias: When I was filming “Flight of the Refugees” in the Balkans, I kept hearing these horrifying stories about the difficult journey that people were making across the Aegean Sea. Something took possession of me. I needed to meet this beast.
Then, two weeks before Christmas of 2016, I received an urgent message from a group of volunteers on the island of Chios. They were in desperate need of help: too many boat landings and not enough volunteers. They didn’t think the exodus would continue during the freezing winter months, but it did. So, two weeks later, I was on the island lending a hand to local NGOs and international volunteers. And I brought my cameraman with me again.
Film Courage: When you initially set out to film, was your intention to document the journey of these refugees or did it evolve into this?
Elias: On my first trip to the Balkans, I wasn’t sure what I would shoot, if anything. I was just there to be of service. Honestly, there was no real plan. I just rolled with whatever came my way. I trusted the journey. But once I heard their stories and saw the images we had captured, I knew I had to do something more with the footage. So really, “Flight of the Refugees” was almost an accidental documentary.
However, when I went out to Chios, I brought better camera and sound equipment with the intention of capturing what we witnessed there. Even so, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Film Courage: What emotions did you feel on this journey set against the breathtaking Aegean Sea, with the extreme uncertainty of these refugees’ futures? What meaning does the Aegean Sea hold for you?
Elias: I have such a deep connection to this sea. It has given passage to so many people in search of a new life, a life free of war. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others, have all used this waterway to escape. But the sea is also a beast that has claimed many lives. On my last night in Turkey, as I prepared to return to America, 33 people lost their lives when their boat capsized less the 3 miles from where I was staying.
Film Courage: How did you meet Ethan Bochicchio, who accompanied you on the trip in EXODUS? Had he ever been to this region before? What was his impression? Why did he want to go?
Elias: Ethan was at a screening of “Flight of the Refugees” at my kids’ school, where he attended. He was 18 at the time. Ethan was moved by the film and asked if he could join me on my next mission.
He had never been to Europe or the Middle East before this trip. In the beginning he was nervous and stayed close by. But after a couple of days, he really came into his own, grabbing kids out of boats, changing dippers, enthusiastically going on patrols no matter what time it was. Since that first trip, Ethan has return to Chios three times, volunteering with same NGO. The kid is a rock star.
“It is very difficult adjust to normal life after a trip like this. I imagine it’s similar, though on a smaller scale, to what soldiers experience when returning home from war. When you’re there every moment can save someone’s life. But when we come back, no matter what you say to people, they don’t understand what you’re going through. I am grateful though. All of these trips have opened my eyes to the struggles of other people. Along the way, it created a greater purpose in my own life.”
Filmmaker, Elias Matar of EXODUS
Film Courage: What drives many of these volunteers?
Elias: I think the main thing is that we just wanted to help in some way. We didn’t want to stand idle, watching the greatest catastrophe of our times, and do nothing.
As a volunteer, we pay for all expenses, plane tickets, car rentals, lodging and food. We spend months prior to our trips fundraising to buy food, water, hygienic kits and blankets.
To be part of the international volunteering community is extremely powerful. The only drawback is that it’s really addictive. Volunteers suffer PTSD after their return home, and many keep coming back. I’ve seen volunteers sell everything they own, and reside in the area they are working.
Film Courage: How did you meet your collaborator Edward E. Romero? What gifts does he bring to your work that compliment it?
Elias: Edward has been my longtime writing partner. We first met while collaborating on a narrative feature film over ten years ago. We’ve since written a half-dozen feature scripts as well as three documentaries. He likes to say that the work is divided up fifty-fifty. He just writes the black parts.
Film Courage: How many people were on your crew and how much equipment did you have with you?
Elias: Our crew consisted of Kyle, Ethan and myself.
Our gear needed to be small, lightweight and rugged. For “Exodus” we used Sony A7s with Tilta Es T17 handheld gear and a digital sound recorder attached to a small boom. I also had a wireless mic. The real trick was keeping the batteries charged. Which was not always an easy task.
Film Courage: The cinematography was excellent. Can you share about your DP, what he went through to obtain shots and the challenges he faced?
Elias: Fearless and insane is how I would describe Kyle Jaimes. There was no shot that was impossible. During our visit the smuggler’s camp, he was literally ten feet away from the boat being loaded up by the smugglers. Getting the shot was everything to Kyle, “The world needs to see this shit,” he would say.
Film Courage: What is the personality type or character of most asylum seekers?
Elias: Most of people who landed in Greece were hopeful. And the passage of the Aegean Sea was a testament to their incredible will to survive. There is not one way to describe these asylum-seekers. They come from many different countries, seeking a better life. Most were families, children, parents and grandparents. Occasionally you would meet a group of young people or unaccompanied minors. The youngest ones I met who were traveling alone were two brothers twelve and fourteen years old.
Film Courage: How many moments during the filming of this movie did you fear your own safety or the safety of those traveling?
Elias: There were two times when I genuinely feared for my life. The first was on one of the landings. One of the smugglers on the rubber raft had a gun. He was not willing to hand over the boat. He wanted to dump the refugees and return to Turkey. Which he did, while keeping us at gunpoint.
The second time was at the smugglers’ camp in Turkey. There was a large presence of Turkish mafia, private security services and other armed underground factions. Filming in these areas was an extremely stressful situation.
Film Courage: How many trips did you make to film? Upon returning home, what were your thoughts about your daily life?
Elias: I shot Exodus in one trip. However, it took me six months after I got back home to start editing. It was really difficult to face that imagery and these stories again. But after many hours of therapy (not kidding) I was able to sit down with with my editor and pull the story together in about six weeks. My co-writer, Edward, also was a very strong voice in the film. He has an uncanny ability to take my thoughts and feelings and help me transform them into written words.
It is very difficult adjust to normal life after a trip like this. I imagine it’s similar, though on a smaller scale, to what soldiers experience when returning home from war. When you’re there every moment can save someone’s life. But when we come back, no matter what you say to people, they don’t understand what you’re going through. I am grateful though. All of these trips have opened my eyes to the struggles of other people. Along the way, it created a greater purpose in my own life.
Film Courage: Can you please finish this sentence “Being part of the solution and not part of the problem in today’s geo-political landscape means…”
Elias: Don’t be complacent. Your children or your grandchildren will one day ask you what you did during the largest humanitarian crisis in our lifetime. What will you tell them?
Film Courage: How can people help Syrians and others fleeing their homeland if they cannot travel abroad and work with them in person?
Elias: I have set up a 501C 3 a nonprofit organization called Lighthouse Peace Initiative, LPI Corp. and the purpose of it is to aid and improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees living in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. All donated money goes directly to support refugees living in camps. Currently, our focus in the refugee camps is on educating the children and empowering women though vocational training. We also still provide aid in the form of food, water and medical supplies, but we are mainly focusing on building educational centers for women and children.
Film Courage: How did the individuals in the camps and on the boats react to the cameras?
Elias: Most wanted their stories told, especially with me, speaking Arabic in a Syrian dialect. After understanding of the purpose of our trip, they just opened their hearts and talked to us. They understood that I wanted to give their story a wider voice.
Film Courage: Whom do they fear more, opposing government forces, smugglers, etc.?
Elias: Their biggest fear was probably the passage across the Aegean Sea itself. Many people have lost their lives in the attempt. The smugglers were not trusted but they were tolerated. Sadly, most refugees were more fearful of a militarized force then smugglers.
Film Courage: Can you share why so many of the children (and many adults) showed the peace sign during filming and how it is brought to the children at such a young age?
Elias: That puzzled me too. So I asked one of the adults about it. What they said amazed me, “We are escaping the same people you fear. We are not terrorist. We are people like you. We just want to live in peace”
Film Courage: The music in EXODUS was striking and dramatic. Who scored the film? What feel did you impart to the composer(s)?
Elias: The music was composed and preformed by a Syrian violinist, Walid Khatba, who took the Aegean Sea journey few months back and now lives in Germany. The only thing he had when he crossed was his violin. I meet him through some friends. I wanted to create a real Syrian tone to the score. I think we achieved that. Every time I hear the music it brings me back the shoes of Chios.
Film Courage: What was the budget?
Elias: Total budget was $75,000.
Film Courage: Where can people watch EXODUS?
Elias: It is available on all digital platforms on April 18th and on cable TV later this year in both the USA and Canada.
Film Courage: What did you learn about yourself that surprised you while making EXODUS?
Elias: Oddly enough, I feel that I have finally embraced my own Syrian heritage. By helping the refugees cross into freedom, I made a personal connection to my own story and the resilience of my people.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Elias: I just finished my third documentary in this series called “Children of Beqaa” which I shot at the refugee camps in Lebanon. Currently, I’m showing the film at universities, events and film festivals. I hope to find a home for it soon. Beyond that, I’m really not sure. I’ve spent the last 2 years working on these three documentaries. I think I might want to go back to fictional films. Just for the mental vacation. I’m considering a film that Edward and I co-wrote called “Lords of Chaos” to shoot toward end of year.
Exodus documents the journey of Syrian refugees as they cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece. In the winter of 2015, over three thousand refugees attempted this treacherous crossing everyday, all in hope of seeking asylum in the European Union. It’s a life and death gamble that they are willing to take, all for a chance at a new life away from their war-torn homeland.
Watch the movie on Vimeo here on April 18thGenre: 108 Believe, Documentary
Cast: Elias Matar; Ethan Bochicchio
Crew: Elias Matar
Year of production: 2016 Running time: 72 Minutes
Watch the movie on Vimeo here on April 18th
CONNECT WITH EXODUS MOVIE:
Elias Matar is a writer, director and producer with a unique gift for telling gritty, hard-boiled stories with heart and soul. His short film Chingaso The Clown was a big hit on the festival circuit, picking up many awards, including: The Audience Choice Award at Kevin Smith’s Movie Askew and Best Underground Film at the FAIF Film Festival. Matar‘s first feature film Ashes has been praised by fans and critics alike, winning several film festival competitions, among them: Best Horror Feature, Shriekfest 2010 and Best Director, Chicago Horror Film Festival. His film Flight of the Refugees won the Best Short Documentary at the Sedona International Film Festival. He is fully dedicated to the craft of independent filmmaking and just completed his second feature documentary Exodus.
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