En Español

Katherine Bruens was having a rough day. When the clerk working the front cash register at her neighborhood corner store asked her how she was doing, she found herself telling him everything: She’d lost her job. She was feeling adrift in a strange city.

“I understand how you feel,” he said. “I myself haven’t seen my wife and children for ten years.”

Bruens looked back. She was 23, and maybe didn’t have much life experience yet, but to her those sounded like two entirely different levels of “sad.” She was so attached to the different people that worked in her neighborhood that she tried to divide her purchases equally between all local businesses. She tried to conceptualize being away from someone she not just liked, but loved for 10 years. Failed.

He smiled encouragingly, “But I’m going back to visit them. For the first time. In just three months.”

And that is the story of how Bruens – freelance video editor, corner store patron – left the Mission and went to Palestine, the site of Yousef Elhaj’s former corner store. Elhaj had moved to San Francisco in 2000 after the second intifada began. A checkpoint appeared between his family home and his corner store in Ramallah, and as sustained fighting constricted the local economy it became more and more impossible to make ends meet. And so he moved to the Mission and took over a corner store from a family member, while he began to save money to bring the rest of the family over.

Bruens only had a few months to find another videographer (Sean Gillane) and raise the money to travel with Elhaj to Ramallah to meet the wife and three children that he hadn’t seen for ten years. It wasn’t very easy: the entire American economy had just collapsed. “We were either very smart or very lucky,” Bruens says.

“Our biggest concern was getting our camera gear through the Allenby Bridge crossing,” says Bruens, referring to the single access point for West Bank Palestinians to travel in and out of the area, and the fact that an American passport is no guarantee in making it through the checkpoint. “We had this story about how we were going to Tel Aviv. We had Lonely Planet Guides. We had a P2X camera that has hard drive slots and a tape deck, so that we could give up the tapes if we were stopped, and still walk away with our footage.”

The documentary that came out of that trip is a sweet and unconventional film about a person trying to unify a life divided between two cities. The Elhaj that Bruens films in San Francisco is a hub of his immediate neighborhood. He holds packages and messages and keys for people, takes care of the neighborhood schitzophrenic, and allows regulars to run up tabs at the store.

“I was raised on “the American story,” says Bruens, who studied English literature and theater at Reed College, “It never looked anything like what I knew. And then I realized that it was because ‘The American Story’ is actually the ‘The American Immigrant Story.’

But, as Bruens makes clear, Elhaj is a hub of the neighborhood precisely because he never leaves. He works from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week. He sleeps in a tiny room in the back, next to stacks of surplus energy drink. Aside from visiting the family’s immigration lawyer (she appears briefly in the film to describe how his family’s immigration situation is not an especially unusual one) everything else he does is woven into the interstices of running the store.

He helps to raise his kids via phone card, in between ringing up lottery tickets. One of the most striking scenes in the film is a simple lunch that Bruens and Elhaj share in the back room of the store. Elhaj sits down, takes two bites of lunch, hears the door buzzer, goes to wait on a customer, comes back, takes two more bites, goes to wait on the next customer, comes back. This repeats. Over, and over, and over.

Back in his country of origin, Elhaj is…remarkably the same. He has the same controlled, faintly sad expression when reuniting with his family, when being pestered for an iPod by his teenage daughter, and when discussing whether or not his oldest son even wants to continue to attempt to emigrate America, now that he’s eighteen, and essentially an adult. The son has a girlfriend, and, as he explains, somewhat sheepishly, to the camera, “She wishes that we stay together in this beautiful relationship.”

At another point, an old woman accosts Elhaj and tells him, in no uncertain terms, to beware the consequences of taking his teenage daughter back to California. “If she stays here,” she says, “she will become someone that your family will be proud of. Instead of some American monster.”

Again, his expression doesn’t shift. He’s an unconventional choice of documentary subject – intriguing in his stoicism. A scene that didn’t make it into the film was Elhaj’s absolute refusal to stop at his old corner store in Ramallah. “I’m not going to say that I didn’t have it on my list,” says Bruens. “Stop by old corner store” – with a check box next to it. We saw a building. It was boarded up. He refused to even slow down the car.”

For that reason, it’s impossible to tell exactly how he feels about being the subject of a documentary. Walking into the store after seeing a screening of the film produces a strange doubling effect. There’s the “beep” when you walk through the door – just like in the film. There’s the display of potato chips – just like in the film. And there’s Elhaj. Looking stoic, and being polite – just like in the film.

“At first I thought she was a spy,” said Elhaj, of Bruens. “A spy for the United States immigration.” What made him change his mind? Elhaj just smiles.

The next showings of The Corner are on March 27th at 3 and 7 pm, as part of the Arab Film Festival.

Victoria Theater
2961 16th St., SF

Tickets are $12-$25

There will be a discussion after the film with Yousef Elhaj and Katherine Bruens.

More information at www.thecornerstoredocumentary.org

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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1 Comment

  1. terrific. i’m very sorry i’m going to miss the screening. The terribly bad joke is the “family values” claptrap coming from the same people pushing the same policies. Of all the sins of globalization, tearing families apart has to be one of the worst. Not only Palestine; El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, etc. etc. thanks heather. and katherine. hope the film will be shown again soon.

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