Photos by Rommy Ghaly and Benjamin Taft
Sex and sandwiches.
It’s the unlikely—or perhaps likely, whatever wets your whistle—duo providing the common thread running through director Lewis Bennett’s 2017 full-length feature documentary, The Sandwich Nazi.
We’re first introduced to Salam Kahil, star of the film, waxing lyrical about an incident from his male escort career involving the imaginative use of a candle, in the midst of assembling a sandwich for his attentive, yet wary customers. When searching for a personality to sustain a feature-length character profile, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more suitable than the provocative deli owner.
Salam’s worn a lot of hats outside of the food industry, as evident by the film’s synopsis: “Deli owner Salam Kahil is an art collector, a former male escort, an amateur musician, and a sandwich maker to the homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but his true passion is talking about blowjobs.”
The movie delves into Salam’s tumultuous upbringing—a childhood marred by sexual assault at the hands of a close family member—his hesitations to return home to Lebanon for the first time in 20 years, and conveys a man dedicated to helping out those less fortunate, despite suffering a few life-changing setbacks of his own.
Such charity doesn’t extend to customers who ignore the handwritten sign at his front door, however. If you’re ignorant enough to question Salam’s abilities to make a sandwich, forget to say hello, please, or thank you, or god forbid, use your cellphone, there’ll be no sandwich for you (maybe a lifetime ban to boot, depending on the discrepancy). In a sour postscript to the film’s premiere at SXSW in Austin last year, Salam and the filmmakers are no longer on speaking terms. We caught up with director Lewis Bennett to chat about the making of the film, the challenges of character-driven storytelling, and what caused the rift between star and crew, below.
How did you come to be acquainted with Salam Kahil, “Arab Muslim Lebanese with a Scandinavian deli with a French name in Canada”?
I had heard about the sandwiches first. My brother and some friends used to go there in high school but I’d never been. I was doing some research for a series of short documentaries in 2012 and came across a post about Salam on Reddit. People were telling these hilarious stories from their visits to the deli so I stopped in to buy a sandwich and see what it was like. My first visit was surreal. I’d heard he could be intimidating so I was nervous. Perhaps he could tell—I think the first thing he ever asked me was if I was an undercover cop. I was laughing the entire time. I asked him if we could come back that weekend to start filming and we got started.
How much time did you spend with Salam over the course of the film?
Something like 20-25 days over three years. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for a few months and then we would shoot for a few days in a row.
This was originally a nine-minute short film. What pushed you to make it a full-length feature?
It was pretty clear—even after our first day of shooting—that there was a lot more to Salam’s story. Straightforward biographical documentaries can be pretty boring so we knew it might take some time to find the story. That’s the fun part though, I don’t want to map out the whole story before we start shooting. It’s paint by numbers at that point. The film likely wouldn’t have worked the same without the Lebanon trip, so if that hadn’t happened then maybe we would have had to wait for something else.
What are some challenges you came across in making a profile documentary, particularly with a larger than life character such as Salam?
It’s a tricky balancing act to make a film about someone like Salam. He abruptly turned on the film and us after he returned from our screenings at SXSW. We had worked very hard to try to keep him happy throughout production and post-production, so it was beyond frustrating for things to change after our world premiere. I had watched the film with him before we went to Texas and he seemed good with it all. He had had a couple of small notes that we were happy to address for him.
As a documentarian, you have a responsibility to your subject but you also have a responsibility to your audience to present a truthful representation of a person. I have zero interest in making hagiographical documentaries. Documentaries that sugarcoat their subject’s lives are boring, they’re essentially commercials. If you had watched all our footage you could argue that we even pushed too far in the direction of hagiography but, again, we were trying to keep him happy as well.
He seems to express ideas that contradict themselves (glad he went to Lebanon but says he shouldn’t have gone, always wore protection during escorting but contracted gonorrhoea 10-15 times). Did this affect your approach to telling the story at all?
We had a hard time pinning him down on certain things. He didn’t like to answer our questions directly, and we would get different answers on different days. I wish we could have got past that surface level more times than we did. That being said, in certain examples, like his feelings on whether he should or shouldn’t have gone back to Lebanon, I think he may have felt different on different days. We all have conflicting feelings about things and we’re all evolving and changing our minds.
We were aiming to get to the truth but often we couldn’t get a clear answer no matter how we enquired. My guess is that people watching the film aren’t exactly sure when he’s being disingenuous but that they will feel like most of the things he says are true. That’s how we felt while making the film as well.
Any favourite anecdotes of Salam’s we might not have heard in the film?
I can’t think of anything right now. I think I’m banned from the deli now but I really miss sitting and watching Salam chat with his customers. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
What would you have to say about Salam’s opinion that you focused too much on his sex life, and not on his charity work?
Salam’s generosity and charity work are very impressive and we spent a significant amount of time covering that in the film, in several sections. He is the only person who has mentioned that we could have added more about the charity work so I’d be curious to hear what else he feels we could have included.
I’ve edited 15 or so documentaries and the editing process is always about trying to condense what we see when we spend time with people. If our subject talks about salmon a lot then the film will have lots of salmon talk in it. If they talk about blowjobs a lot then that’s what gets in the film. If you spend any time in the deli or on Salam’s Facebook page then you will see that sex is a big topic in his life. I think the film would have been stronger if it was a little shorter though, so I’m sure we could have trimmed it down by a few minutes.
Your film crew and Salam no longer speak—how do you feel about how things ended up between you both?
It sucks. We had a lot of fun shooting and editing the film and then it all went to shit. I felt like I lost a friend and gained a lot of turmoil. Going bigger picture, I just wish we hadn’t made it in the first place. It’s done now and people enjoy it and I think we made a good film but we didn’t need to carry that bullshit around for a couple years. Thankfully the whole process is almost done but I hate that it has derailed my filmmaking output in such a significant way.
How were the sandwiches?
They’re huge! You can buy one and eat it for several meals. I love that you never know what toppings you’re going to get in them. That makes the decision-making process easier. Sometimes he would add some cool extra stuff on there too, like Danish remoulade. Danish remoulade is legit!