“We were looking for a working class hero story,” said Katherine Bruens, creator of feature film documentary Corner Store at its SF Indiefest preview this weekend. They found it. Corner Store (to be shown again on March 27) widens to include more, however- becoming a portrait of what it is to be an immigrant in this country, on missing home and personal conflict. On what it means to sleep in the back of the convenience store you work in 16 hours a day. The film joined a stellar lineup of shorts and features at the festival, a film geek's delight which continues through Thur/18 around town.
The producers followed their protagonist, Yousef Elhaj, for 14 months, during which they say he was “too polite not to have a documentary made about him." Elhaj hadn’t seen his family for the 10 years he'd spent funding a life for them at his Castro/Mission (“Mistro,” as an interview with some neighbors memorably dubs it) convenience store, where the majority of Corner Store takes place.
It’s a claustrophobic existence to say the least, marked by small talk with customers he's seen year after year, and only occasional forays into the outside world. It would seem like the stuff of boring visuals, but Corner Store’s meticulous record of Yousef’s daily tasks around his space, straightening wine bottles and replacing his deli case, is fascinating. Corner stores are a fact of life in the city, but rarely does one stop to think about the dedication and perseverance that goes into maintaining a well run beer and grocery stop.
At long last, the green card process is achieved and Yousef heads back to Palestine to see his fam. Here, he's surprised to initially feel like an outsider in his birthplace, and the scope widens. Does the family want to stay in their homeland or join Yousef in the New World? Yousef’s family lives in Bethlehem and has to pass through checkpoints to visit a town 10 miles away. The walls that run through their neighborhood become one of the film’s most evocative symbols -- they are a touchstone for many of the world’s premier graffiti artists, and Banksy’s piece of a dove wearing a bullet proof vest seems to evoke Yousef’s journey to find the best life for his family.
Bruens seemed to shy from overtly political questions at the Indiefest post film question and answer session. The film, in its creators’ eyes, is far more about how a man’s life is affected by the Israeli-Palestine conflict than the conflict itself. How successful at convincing audiences of this fact remains to be seen, but I wish them the best. Corner Store is a remarkable achievement of documentary filmmaking; immortalizing the everyday to express a facet of human life.
Next showing w/ Q&A feat. Yousef Elhaj and Katherine Bruens
& Arab Film Festival executive director Michel Shehadeh
March 27th 3, 7 pm, $12-$25
2961 16th St., SF