SXSW 2015 – The Sandwich Nazi
I walked in to the film, The Sandwich Nazi expecting to be entertained by what was presented as an outgoing Lebonese sandwich shop owner who would regale us with tales of his former life as a male escort. What I came away from was something much more personal and human. I didn’t think it would all to be hilarity, thinking of the documentary Meet the Fokkens, but I don’t believe I expected such a revealing look at what really pushed Salam Kahil to the life he has led.
Salam Kahil has not had an easy go of it by any stretch of the imagination. He started with a large family in Lebanon and moved many places, he admits illegally. Finally, he landed in Canada and continued the escort work that he started in Lebanon at the age of fifteen. Eventually Salam opened his deli and had several locations, but finding that it was too difficult for him to really bother with managing other people and dealing with employees in general, he has whittled it down to one store where he works alone. At the shop he regales his customers with stories from his exploits in to the sex trade and gives anyone walking in the door fair warning with regard to the language and inappropriate nudity that might befall them if they walk in to his store. The audience receives their fair share of descriptive stories of his past adventures as he remembers them to each customer while making their sandwiches.
Salam has strong relationships with his customers and cares for them as family, as do his regulars with him. He has created a community through his shop that he can rely on to accept him as he is and support him through tough times. At one point during the film, Salam is in a debilitating accident and amazingly survives an aortic tear, which would kill most people within 24 hours, for sixteen days. His recovery is tough and when he reaches out to his community to help with his other monthly endeavor, making lunches from his shop for the homeless and destitute of the city, he has a store full of volunteers. It is apparent that despite his crass exterior he has a big heart, but he finds a way in his crass nature not to let anyone get too close in order to protect it.
Salam’s inner conflict and struggle is shown at many times throughout the film, particularly when it is revealed that Salam was sexually abused by his oldest brother. His initial revelation is followed immediately with him suggesting it isn’t “that bad” that his brother did this to him starting around the age of three years old. He insists that people in North America like to create drama around these incidents and that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. But, as we move through the film we see that Salam is deeply affected by these events and that it (as one would expect) was very influential in his turn to the escort lifestyle.
A trip to Lebanon to visit the home that never felt as such, and a family that he purports was at least complacent in the face of his brother’s abuse is an fascinating excerpt in the film and would make a wonderful expanded short. Being home means seeing his older brother for the first time in thirty years, and seeing his tormentor takes a large toll on the usually jovial Salam. In a very important moment as before leaving he lets his brother know what he did to him had a horrible affect on the trajectory of his life and his emotional wellbeing. These moments moved me, they were very personal and revealing as Salam lets that wall down in his most vulnerable moment.
Despite two major accidents that have left him disabled and an attempt to close the business once to heal his body and maybe his mind, Salam keeps going for all the people that are relying on him. They are the driving force in his life and if he were to lose his shop, he might lose his community, his adopted family that he has found in Canada, and it seems this scares him more than anything. Interestingly, for all the things he shares with his friends and customers, the one thing he could use the most support with he keeps under wraps.
The film is a cut in what I believe is the director, Lewis Bennett’s attempt to show the conflict in Salam and how he talks, as opposed to how he really feels. Showing the masking that his bravado is to hide his earliest experiences in life. The film felt a bit more like the different moments of Salam’s story telling, emotional moments and his trip to Lebanon, was a series of three shorts cut together rather than a feature. This does make it feel disjointed at times, but the overall intention still holds true.
I really appreciate the story, the depth that came from it and all of the angles from which the director was able to look at this intriguing man. I took away a story of a man who has been running from his childhood and though he faces it head on, he doesn’t necessarily gain power from it. The Sandwich Nazi was a reminder of the different ways that people find to deal with things like this that may happen in their life and how building a community around oneself can help keep you going, no matter what hardships you encounter.
I still feel like there is a part of Salam’s story that we have yet to hear. Admittedly, there is a hesitance to wanting to hear more, as by his own admission, the deli owner has taken advantage of a lot of people over time as one would imagine you would have to in order to survive in the world he lived in prior to opening the deli. You can’t call Salam an anti-hero with his cavalier way of speaking about his exploits, his own liability to himself as a boss due to his seeming inability to be appropriate at any given time and the parts of his story we haven’t yet heard. He is an interesting subject for this documentary and the larger part of his message with regard to sexual abuse resonates.
In an odd, yet touching Q&A after the film, Salam Kahil spoke out about the effects of childhood abuse and bullying and the importance to pay attention and stand up for those who are being mistreated. He also shared a peek at his most valued and most discussed body part with the audience just before the close of the evening. To be fair, it was at an audience member’s request.