Until recently, Syrian-American filmmaker Elias Matar probably was best known for Chingaso the Clown, his 2006 campy short thriller about an orphaned clown bent on revenge. That all began to change in the fall of 2015, when he flew from his home in Glendale to Austria. From there he planned to rent a van to help transport Syrian refugees trekking across Europe to escape the civil war in their homeland, but legal concerns soon convinced him to abandon that scheme. Instead, he traveled to a cornfield on the Serbia-Croatia border, where he translated Arabic for refugees and, with the help of a freelance cinematographer, filmed as 2,000 to 3,000 people — some of them unaccompanied children as young as 12 — flooded across the border in a single night.
That experience became Flight of the Refugees, the first of three documentaries he's made about the crisis and winner of the award for Best Short Documentary at the Sedona International Film Festival in 2016. His latest, Children of Beqaa, focuses on the 800,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. This month he'll return to Lebanon to work with Salam: Lebanese Association for Development & Communication, a nonprofit organization that provides food, medical treatment, English-language classes and vocational training to refugees.
Matar's experiences internationally have spurred him to pursue direct humanitarian engagement both abroad and at home. He has founded the nonprofit Lighthouse Peace Initiative, aimed at bringing medical aid, supplies and education to refugees in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. Closer to home, he helps ease the transition for newly arrived Syrian refugee families in Los Angeles.
“That night [in the cornfield] changed my life forever,” he says. “When you realize that you as an individual can save or be part of helping someone — that was stunning for me.”
These days, Matar leaves the camera behind, and he's inspiring those around him to take action.
Matar was born in California but spent much of his childhood in Syria. He returned to the United States in the 1980s and attended Purdue University in Indiana.
“It wasn't the best place for anybody who wasn't all-American,” he says of his college experience. In the decades that followed, “Being Syrian wasn't something I was proud of,” he says. “It was something I just learned how to hide.”
Still, he kept tabs on his homeland. He watched, captivated, as the Arab Spring uprisings upturned the Middle East, then with increasing concern as Syria slid into civil war. Matar's spontaneous trip to aid refugees in 2015 was the answer to the question that had continued to nag at him: “What can I do?”
Documenting his first experience was an afterthought. He hired a freelance cinematographer, and they each brought a camera. Beyond that, “We had no plan,” he says. “We just showed up.”
In the cornfield, the refugees Matar met immediately recognized his Syrian-accented Arabic. “They were walking away from their homeland, but somehow I was getting closer to my own ancestral background,” he says. “The irony of the whole thing was I felt like I was helping them, but in reality I was being blessed.”
Matar returned from Serbia exhausted and burnt out. He cut together Flight of the Refugees and figured his work was done. Then he got a call from friends alerting him to the massive influx of refugees to the Greek islands. Two weeks later, he was standing in Chios.
Matar wasn't alone on his second trip. He brought Ethan Bochicchio, then a 19-year-old high school senior on winter break. Bochicchio had seen Matar's first documentary during a screening at Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, where he attended school with Matar's daughter. Bochicchio didn't know much about the Syrian war before watching the film, but seeing humanitarian workers in action marked a turning point. “It looked really possible to go and do something,” he says. “For me it was like a 'duh' moment.” He called Matar, who was leaving again for Europe two weeks later on the trip from which he would get source material for his second film, Exodus.
It was December 2015, the peak of the crisis. That year, more than a million refugees arrived in Europe by sea, most crossing from Turkey in precarious rubber rafts. In Chios, “Boats were coming like crazy,” each crammed with 50 to 60 refugees, Bochicchio says. The water was freezing, and some children had hypothermia. Matar and Bochicchio worked with the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team, helping provide new arrivals with dry clothes and food. Later, they traveled to an illegal smuggler's camp in Turkey, where refugees in squalid conditions awaited transport.
Before the trip, Bochicchio wanted to be a musician. Now the Santa Monica City College freshman is considering humanitarian work instead. So far he has raised $30,000 in GoFundMe donations for refugees; this month he'll visit Chios for the fourth time. Repeated trips there have given him a window into the shifting demographics of the refugee situation. Since 2015, the number of Syrians has decreased as arrivals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine have increased. On his last trip in January, he was shocked to find many of the same faces he had seen six months earlier.
“I would have figured people would have gone on, but people were stuck there,” he says.
That includes Saba, an 18-year-old Yazidi Kurd from Iraq, whom Bochicchio taught to play the guitar. Saba and his sisters want to get to Germany, where they have relatives, but more than a year after they arrived in Greece, they're still awaiting completion of their paperwork. Yazidi Kurds are a religious and ethnic minority in Iraq and have been persecuted by ISIS. But in Europe, non-Syrian refugees receive lower resettlement priority than Syrians — and much less media coverage.
“The Syrian story is told and it needs to be told more,” Bochicchio says. “But the Afghan story and the Iraqi story and the Palestinian story is not told, and it needs to be talked about.”
Following his trip to Greece with Bochicchio, Matar chose to focus his efforts on the Beqaa Valley, where half a million Syrian refugees now live. His work there brought him face to face with his roots. During one food distribution, he encountered another Syrian family with his last name. In that moment, he says, he realized how easily “it could have been me” on the other side of the table. “It was really devastating,” he says. “It's haunting.”
Matar is convinced that he can no longer approach the crisis as a filmmaker. Reliving his experiences as he pieced together the films was emotionally grueling. “It's not shooting the film. It's writing the narrative, pulling the stories,” he says. “And then the hard decision — what stories serve to tell the story, and what are other stories that people trusted you with that would never make it?”
His work with Syrian refugees in Los Angeles lets Matar relate to them simply as people rather than subjects. He supports two families here, helping smooth their transition to American life through community dinners. At these events, the Syrians cook a traditional meal, and Angelenos pay to attend. Any leftover proceeds go to support the families.
Bochicchio's father, Stephen, says the dinners serve as a cultural exchange. He and his son help tutor one of the families in English on Sundays, and the two families have shared meals.
“We've become close friends. It's really lovely,” the elder Bochicchio says. “It was an incredible thing to experience a culture in its complete richness.”
Matar says he misses filmmaking and hopes to complete a fiction film by the end of the year. But he's not taking his sights off his humanitarian work. It's too important, he says.
“The level of the catastrophe is so large,” he says. “If every one of us did something — not necessarily in Lebanon or Greece but in their own neighborhood, areas that they feel called to — then we can change the world.” `