PROFILE

Marcel Mettelsiefen

A girl kneels by an open window looking out, holding a patterned pillow.

Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen worked as a photojournalist before moving into documentary filmmaking. His Oscar-nominated short film Watani: My Homeland followed a Syrian family as they fled Aleppo and found a new life in Germany. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen is a BAFTA- and Emmy Award-winning director. His 76-minute film, Watani: My Homeland, which follows one family as they escape the Syrian civil war and make a new home in Germany, earned him an Oscar nomination in 2016 for Best Documentary Short Subject.

These glittering accolades are deserved recognition for a career devoted to conflict reporting and documentary filmmaking, but he nearly took a different path entirely. Marcel had intended on becoming a doctor, but in 1999 his best friend asked whether he'd like to start zenith, a magazine about the Middle East.

"I had time and loved to travel the world, so when he asked, I said yes," Marcel remembers. "I had never been into photography until I started zenith and realised that I wanted to get to know this tool a little bit more to help with the magazine."

Although enjoying the new challenge, Marcel still hadn't lost sight of his dream of becoming a doctor, but a chance opportunity led him to develop his photography further.

"While I was waiting to be accepted into medical school in Berlin, I took an internship as a photographer with AP (Associated Press) in Jerusalem," he recalls. "When the Second Intifada broke out in late 2000, I was hired as a freelance photojournalist and went to Israel."

The AP internship eventually led to a new source of income and career path as a photojournalist covering conflict zones. Between 2000 and 2004, Marcel worked as a freelance photojournalist in Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti, studying politics to support his work. But in 2004, a traumatising experience made him rethink his new career choice.

A headshot of filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen.

Location: Barcelona, Spain
Specialist area: Documentary filmmaking
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS C300 Mark III
Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

"We got into a crazy conflict in Haiti where eight photographers were ambushed and only four survived," he says. "After this, I decided to go back to study medicine."

Marcel began his degree in medicine that year in Berlin and supported himself by working as a freelance fashion photographer. After five and a half years on the course, he used his summer break to go back to Afghanistan with an NGO. The trip was supposed to last for two weeks but he ended up staying for 18 months.

Marcel began work as a photojournalist again, selling pictures to global news publications including Stern magazine. In the summer of 2011, he left Afghanistan with a group of photojournalists and headed for Syria to cover the Arab Spring. "I went to Syria undercover," he says. "I had to go in as a doctor because I couldn't get permission as a journalist."

Posing as a doctor meant that Marcel couldn't take his professional photography kit. "I only took my phone and a small €500 camcorder," he says. "During that trip, I made the transition to filmmaking and never returned to photography." Despite only having an entry-level video camera, Marcel remembers that "filmmaking felt like a continuation of what I had been doing, but with a much bigger tool to work with."

A man in a thick black coat with the hood up stands beside a Canon cinema camera, adjusting the lens. Next to him stands a man in a camouflage jacket and headscarf, looking at the camera.

Marcel has been working on a project on the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2020. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Marcel had learned how to focus on emotion while presenting the complexities of war as a photographer, but felt that there were increased opportunities to do that as a filmmaker. After determining his new path, he decided to upgrade his filmmaking kit.

"I bought a Canon EOS C300 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III) when I started becoming more ambitious and used it with my prime lenses. That opened up a completely new universe. Being able to tell a strong story with a cinematic approach made the experience so much richer," he says. Marcel's reports from Syria were aired by Channel 4, PBS, CNN, Al Jazeera and Canal+.

In order to create the intimacy that defines his documentary work, Marcel operates as a solo shooter. "The power of this gear makes it possible to work in a way that wasn't possible 20 years ago," he says. His many prestigious awards are a testament to the cinematic quality of his work, but at the heart of it all is a deep empathy with, and close connection to, his subjects.

"Sometimes I follow my characters over two or three years. I have to sneak into their lives and give myself in order to receive. It's this human exchange that makes my job very interesting," he concludes.

A woman cradling her young child as they sit in the back of a car, a rainy motorway moving past out of the window.

Marcel was already working in Syria when the war escalated, and the family he was with made the decision to leave the country. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

A woman is silhouetted dancing on the beach after sunset, her arms raised in the air above her head.

Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years, and was nominated for an Academy Award after Marcel discovered the existence of the Best Documentary Short Subject category and decided to submit it. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

What distinct memory do you have from your time covering the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war?

"I've been to Syria around 25 times, and the accumulation of horror is so massive. I saw friends die there, and while I tried not to focus on this, it's always there alongside disbelief at how this peaceful uprising deteriorated into a terrible civil war. I decided not to go back in 2014 or 2015. I paid a price for it – I think every photographer who's covered conflict pays a price. It's not the moments on the ground but the moments back home that are challenging."



What kept you motivated throughout your time there?

"I don't go to war zones looking for danger. What I've always been interested in is countries that are turned upside down. I get to see the worst, but also the best of humanity. I feel privileged to have been able to witness history evolving in front of my eyes and as a politically interested person, it's just unbelievable."



In 1999, you co-founded zenith. What were your hopes for the magazine and have your ambitions changed since?

"It started as a completely niche thing because my friend was studying Arabic. We were friends who travelled together so I agreed to help him out, and it evolved into being the most important magazine about the Middle East in Europe. It used to be monthly, then it became every second month and then quarterly. Every medium is struggling, but we're trying to stick to quarterly printed magazines while shifting everything online. It's now published in three different languages: Arabic, English and German."



You've won many awards. Which are you most proud of?

"The only award I directly applied for was the Oscars. That's what I'm most proud of. I was in the edit of Watani: My Homeland when I turned on the TV to watch the Academy Awards. I'd never watched it before, but a friend of mine had been nominated and I wanted to see if he'd win. Until then I didn't realise that Best Documentary Short Subject was a category, but when I saw it I thought, 'Maybe I should do this!' I learned a lot about the industry through the process and it opened up many doors."



What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

"There are a lot of young journalists out there looking to make a name for themselves, and my advice would be to try to understand what role it is you're playing. In a world that's overloaded with information, I think what I'm able to do with speciality documentary filmmaking is create something that people can relate to and understand. Although we might feel very removed from people in war zones, we connect through global themes, and that's what I want to show."

One thing I know

Marcel Mettelsiefen

"It's the talent of your craft that gives you opportunity. In scientific careers or medicine, there's a very rigid way to climb the career ladder. But in photography and filmmaking, if you can come up with brilliant work, you're able to open doors and take a shortcut to the top."

Website:https://zenith.me/en

Marcel Mettelsiefen's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use

Documentary filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen holding a Canon camera.

Cameras

Canon EOS C300 Mark III

This next generation camera incorporates Canon's 4K Super 35mm DGO sensor, with 4K 120p slow motion, High Dynamic Range and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, into the same body as the EOS C500 Mark II. "The power of this gear means you're able to work alone and still deliver absolute cinematic quality," says Marcel.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the camera Marcel favours is a beautifully engineered and thoroughly accomplished all-rounder that's designed to perform in every situation. Marcel says: "I don't do much photography anymore, but I still have my trusty EOS 5D Mark III."

Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

A 35mm prime lens with a 4-stop Image Stabilizer and f/2 maximum aperture – ideal for low-light photography. "I never work with zooms in photography because I prefer to get close to my subjects," says Marcel.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, this lens is a consummate low-light performer, which allows fine creative control over focusing and depth of field. Marcel says: "The combination of the 50mm and 35mm are perfect for reportage. They give you the right lengths to work with and fast apertures to make the pictures look great."

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

This fast portrait lens delivers clear, sharp images full of contrast and colour with razor-sharp detail, ideal for high-resolution sensors. "I use the 85mm on a tripod when I don't want to interfere too much. It means I can pick up details while my subject forgets about me," says Marcel.

Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 FP X

Discover the Sumire Prime look: exceptionally beautiful bokeh and impressive low-light performance. Marcel says: "I always try to use primes for run-and-gun shooting."

Canon CN-E35mm T1.5 FP X

This Sumire Prime lens offers a fast aperture and precise manual control with a crafted focus bokeh aimed at careful creative expression. "I work a lot with the 24mm and 35mm primes," says Marcel.

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