Victims of Torture

For this assignment, I was asked by Médecins Sans Frontières to film profiles of two people who receive treatment from MSF’s Victims of Torture unit in Athens, Greece.

Directed, produced, filmed and edited by Matthew Cassel

Equipment used: Sony A7SII, DJI Mavic Pro, Zhiyun Crane

The Journey

For 31-year-old Aboud, seeking asylum in Europe is the only way the Syrian father can reunite with his wife and two children. The only problem is getting there. I spent one year with Aboud as he sets out on a grueling and uncertain journey from Istanbul to the Netherlands, becoming one of the pioneers of what would be known as the “Balkan route,” while his wife Christine and their children leave their home in Damascus for a new life in Europe. Watch all six episodes above.

“The Journey” was commissioned by Field Of Vision, and published in English with The New Yorker, and in seven other languages.

Directed, produced, filmed and co-edited by Matthew Cassel
Edited and co-produced by Olivia Dehez
Filmed in Syria by Simone Safieh
Executive producers: Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook

Translation/transcription by Bassel Halabi and Ali Si Hosseini
Color correcting by Pilou
Sound mixing by Post Biyik

Equipment used: Canon C-100 MkII, iPhone, Sony A7SII, Sony FS5, Canon 70D.

Welcoming refugees in Macedonia

Mini-doc for Al Jazeera English.

For people like Gabriela Andreevska, working with Europe-bound refugees crossing her country, Macedonia, feels like the film “Groundhog Day”. Every day, thousands arrive from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq ,Pakistan and elsewhere to Gevgelija, on the border with Greece.

Most are completely unprepared for the journey. They know little about what they need to do, and they’re often travelling with nothing except the clothes on the backs. The Macedonian government provides little for the refugees crossing its borders illegally. That is where ordinary Macedonians like Gabriela step in.

She, along with other activists, provide the weary travellers with food, clothes, information, and hugs. “I know it’s not part of their culture for me to touch a man, but I do it to let them know they’re welcome in Europe,” she says.

After a few hours in Gevgelija, most refugees board one of the three daily Soviet-era trains and continue on to the border with Serbia. But for Gabriela, the situation resets.

After a tiring day helping hundreds of people, she has to prepare for tomorrow, when she will do the same thing all over again. Every day is very much the same for her, but for the refugees it is a new place and another step on their way to a new life in Western Europe.

Directed, filmed, produced, and edited by Matthew Cassel

Occupied and High in Jerusalem

Some young Palestinians in Occupied East Jerusalem are turning to drugs, including a new and dangerous synthetic cannabis product called “Mr. Niceguy.”

For AJ+, I went to Jerusalem and spoke with users, anti-drug activists and a treatment specialist to find out how Israel’s illegal military occupation is contributing to increased drug use among Palestinians.

Watch the three-part series below.

Part 1, Mr. Niceguy:

Par 2, Absent Authority:

Part 3, Fighting Back:

Inside Syriza

For this three-part series for AJ+, I traveled to Athens, Greece in the run-up to historic elections that saw the rise of the radical left and anti-austerity Syriza party. I followed one of its activists, Olga Balaoura, in the final days of campaigning and during the election results.

Directed, produced, filmed and edited by Matthew Cassel
Co-produced by Ilias Madouros

Equipment used: Canon C-100 MkII

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution

9780143125150H

As revolution swept through the Arab world in spring of 2011, much of the writing that reached the West came via analysts and academics, experts and expats. We heard about Facebook posts and tweeted calls to action, but what was missing was testimony from on-the-ground participants—which is precisely what Layla Al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel and Nemonie Craven have brought together in Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution. These essays and profoundly moving, often harrowing, firsthand accounts span the region from Tunisia to Syria and include contributors ranging from student activists to seasoned journalists—half of whom are women. This unique collection explores just how deeply politics can be held within the personal and highlights the power of writing in a time of revolution.

“Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution” reviewed in the NYT.

Buy the book online.

March in Istanbul to mourn Kobane fighter


There have been many reports about the thousands of foreigners joining the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as it continues to make gains in Syria and Iraq, but less about those foreigners joining the fight against them.

Suphi Nejat Agirnasli was one of them. And on October 5, while fighting alongside besieged Kurds in the town of Kobane of northern Syria, he was killed in battle.

Agirnasli, a 30-year-old Turkish-German, was a member of Turkey’s banned Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP). He was not ethnically Kurdish, but in August he left his home in Istanbul to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an armed Syrian-Kurdish group that in recent months has defended Kurdish areas from ISIL’s offensive. In September, after taking a number of Kurdish town in northern Syria, ISIL laid s siege to Kobane in a battle that is still raging. While in Syria, Agirnasli used the nom de guerre Paramaz Kizilbas, an Armenian leftist who was executed in Istanbul in 1915.

On Sunday, October 19, hundreds of mourners commemorated Agirnasli’s death with a march through Istanbul’s Kadikoy district.

Read Al Jazeera America’s report on Agirnasli.

Being watched in Britain

The UK government says it wants to put an end to extremism by engaging the Muslim community. It recently began the “Prevent” program, which seeks to stop the extremism before it happens. However, many British Muslims are skeptical of the program, which they feel is another attempt to unfairly scrutinize their entire community.

I went to Birmingham, UK, to speak with Muslims and government officials about this subject. This is my report, video and written, on that investigation.


UK uses health workers in counter-terror plan
(original link on Al Jazeera English)

Medical workers, most would agree, have one important job to do: look after the well-being of their patients. However, in the UK, employees of the National Health Service are now being assigned another task: identifying potential terrorists.

This new directive comes from the Prevent programme, part of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy created in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

As part of this mission, since last year Prevent has been providing mandatory training to employees of the National Health Service (NHS) on how to identify potential terrorists among patients, visitors and other medical staff, and report them to the authorities.

Documents given by Prevent to medical workers, copies of which were obtained by Al Jazeera, say the following: “The NHS has been identified as a key player in supporting the Prevent strategy as healthcare staff are considered to be well placed to help to identify concerns and protect people from radicalisation.”

‘Government informants’

Al Jazeera spoke to a nurse working for the NHS on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media. (Al Jazeera also learned of similar Prevent training being offered to educators, firefighters and others in the public sector; however, none agreed to discuss the training on record.)

“The healthcare worker’s job is to ultimately treat your patient,” the nurse said. “It doesn’t matter what they walk in the door with – you, as a healthcare professional within whatever specialty you work, you’ve been trained to support them.”

The nurse was concerned by the vague characteristics presented as indicators of possible radicalisation. One of the Prevent documents listed factors such as “identity crisis”, “personal crisis” and “unemployment” that could make someone vulnerable to radicalisation.

The document also listed political views that NHS staff should look out for, such as a “rejection of UK foreign policy”, “mistrust of Western media”, and “perceptions that UK government policy is discriminatory [eg counter-terrorist legislation]”.

The nurse said trainers were careful to avoid mentioning Muslims. However, medical staff were told that the main terrorist threat to the UK comes from Islamist groups, and the violent acts mentioned were mostly incidents perpetrated by Muslims.

She added that identifying potential terrorists was not part of her job as a health worker. “It’s actually something that the police should be doing,” she said. “Offering this training, it’s almost as if we’re becoming government informants.”

Outreach

Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester and national lead for Prevent’s police programme, confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical workers and other civil servants were being given counter-terrorism training.

“If there are health professionals who have serious concerns that the person they’re dealing with is getting involved in extremist activity and that is harming their well-being and harming their community, then yes, absolutely, it’s about them being able to raise those concerns,” Sir Fahy said. “Clearly, there is a significant terrorist threat to this country. We can understand that people can feel very strongly about international issues and other political issues, and it’s trying to identify people who may be at risk of taking that concern to a level of violence.”

On its website, Prevent says it seeks to tackle terrorist threats wherever they occur. However, it also says that the “most serious is from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. With the overwhelming majority of Prevent’s efforts focused on British Muslims, many in the minority community believe they are being unfairly targeted.

Sir Fahy acknowledged the grievance, and said he hopes to address complaints by making Prevent’s efforts more transparent to the public. “It’s really about how we… confront the threat of terrorism, but at the same time maintaining the confidence of the Muslim community as we go along.”

Lost confidence

But that confidence may already be lost. Jahan Mahmood, a historian and former adviser to the government’s counter-terrorism unit, said that while Prevent mentions possible extremism from a range of groups, “there is a disproportionate focus on Muslims, there is no doubt about that. And that’s also one of the reasons it’s failed to gain traction with the Muslim population”.

In Birmingham’s predominantly Muslim Sparkbrook neighbourhood, Mahmood pointed above his head to lampposts where in 2010, the government installed hundreds of surveillance cameras – ostensibly for monitoring crime in the area.

But it was soon exposed that the counter-terrorism unit installed the cameras to monitor residents. After an outcry from the Muslim community, bags were placed on top of the cameras and they were eventually removed, with authorities assuring that they had never been turned on.

Mahmood said the incident led to a serious breakdown of trust between Muslims and the police. Al Jazeera spoke to a number of British Muslims in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who said they believe Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts are less about preventing violence than about monitoring every aspect of Muslim life. This has left many in the community feeling alienated from the rest of British society.

But Mahmood warned that it’s not only British Muslims who should be concerned over the government’s counter-terrorism laws and programmes like Prevent.

In recent years, Mahmood said: “We’ve seen draconian legislation introduced – and that means we are surrendering our civil liberties. Where will this end? The rest of Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we are sleep-walking ourselves into very serious times.”

“Identity and Exile”

UPDATE April 13, 2014: Good news, “Identity and Exile” is now available in the US on Youtube. You can watch it at the following links:

Pt1: http://aje.me/identityexile1
Pt2 http://aje.me/identityexile2

665003303001_2877154530001_20131124121740258734-20I spent most of 2013 working on a film for Al Jazeera English’s “Correspondent” series, which follows an AJE journalist as they embark on a personal journey to explore an issue important to them. For my film I chose to look at how support for Israel has come to define Jewish-American identity. I was raised Jewish in Chicago, and as a supporter of the Palestinian struggle this is an issue  I’ve struggled with for many years.

Unfortunately, the film is currently unavailable in the US because of restrictions on Al Jazeera English content by US cable providers since the launch of Al Jazeera America. However, anyone lucky enough to be outside the US can watch the two parts on on Al Jazeera’s website here: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeracorrespondent/2013/11/identity-exile-20131124121757352111.html
It’s also on Youtube: part 1 http://aje.me/identityexile1 and part 2 http://aje.me/identityexile2
If you are in the US you can contact me for information about if and when it will be available.
Here is the film’s synopsis from Al Jazeera’s website:

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Jews migrated from Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia to the US, settling across the country’s big cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago where they found opportunity and established strong communities. Those communities continued to grow in the subsequent decades as more Jews fled anti-Semitism across Europe.

A growing number of Jews also migrated to Palestine at the turn of the century, part of a nascent Zionist movement. Migration to Palestine increased after World War I. At the end of World War II, following the horrors of the holocaust, the state of Israel was created in what had previously been British-controlled Palestine. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, exiled into neighbouring countries and refugee camps.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the land continues to this day. How does this contentious issue affect Judaism in the US? Why is there such strong support for Israel in the US irrespective of the issue or cost?

Al Jazeera’s Matthew Cassel travels back to his native Chicago where he was raised Jewish. He talks to local rabbis, friends and family about why so many in the Jewish-American community believe it is important to maintain support for Israel … no matter what.

And he travels back to Palestine to retrace his steps as a young man. At that time, during the second Intifada, he was shocked to discover the impact Israeli policies were having on Palestinians.

He tries to understand how Jewish religious beliefs have turned into a political cause that he does not agree with – but that the US actively accepts and supports.

White House propaganda

instagram.com/syrianpresidency

instagram.com/syrianpresidency

When Bashar al-Assad joined Instagram last week, US media waged an intifada lambasting the embattled Syrian president for his “propaganda” effort.

“Instagram becomes latest propaganda tool for Syria’s embattled president,” read the headline in the Washington Post.

“This Is What It Looks Like When A Brutal Dictator Starts Using Instagram,” said BuzzFeed.

“Syrian President Assad’s Desperate Instagram Feed,” wrote the Daily Beast.

“Syrian president recruits Instagram in ongoing propaganda war,” said The Verge.

“Bashar Assad’s Instagram Is Every Bit The Propaganda You’d Expect From The Syrian President’s Social Media Minions,” said the always elaborate Huffington Post.

instagram.com/petesouza

instagram.com/petesouza

Around that same time White House photographer Pete Souza, a former photojournalist with Chicago newspapers hired by the president in 2009, also joined Instagram.

Here’s how some of those headlines read:

“White House photographer debuts Instagram account,” said the Washington Post.

“White House Photographer Joins Instagram And It’s Amazing,” said BuzzFeed.

“Turning Politics to Art: WH Photog Launches Instagram Account,” said Time magazine, which was lucky to land an interview with Souza soon after.

But Time didn’t ask the former news photographer how he feels now that he’s surrendered all independence and is getting paid to disseminate images of the president that the US government wants us to see. Instead Souza was asked about Bo, the White House dog.

“The Instagrams of Bo are excellent – how is he as a subject?”

Followed by this hard-hitting question:

“Are you going to do any selfies?”

There’s a very simple explanation for why we’re not going to see Obama signing his secret weekly kill lists or operating drones over civilian areas in Pakistan, just as we’re not going to see images of Assad  shelling homes in Aleppo or the underground detention centers where opposition activists are held. Both men (and their respective staffs) control what is allowed to be published on these social media platforms.

I don’t disagree that Assad’s Instagram account is propaganda, it clearly is. But let’s not kid ourselves that Obama’s account is anything different. So why aren’t US media calling it that?