April 20, 2017
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Alex Ghassan, 1981-2016: Filmmaker and Friend
by Doniphan Blair
Alex Ghassan on Lake Merritt, Oakland, while rats scurried in the background and grand plans were postulated. photo: D. Blair
I ONLY MET ALEX FRANTZ GHASSAN
six months ago, at a press preview for the “Oakland, I Want to Know You” show at the Oakland Museum. It featured three videos he shot around West Oakland, including on the drug corner behind cineSOURCE, often using his inimitable bob-and-weave style (see one
Among a plethora of notable projects, an early Alex film featured an interview with Spike Lee and, last year, he did a music video for Sandhja, a rock star from Finland.
After Alex and I met twice again, in quick succession, we began hanging out, burning blunts, discussing and dissing New York, our mutual home town, as well as sharing our love and plans for Oakland.
To have Alex cut down three weeks after his 35th birthday is no more horrific and tragic than the death of the 35 other people (see
) in that disgusting, preventable fire in East Oakland, in the early hours of December 3rd, 2016.
Still, Alex was gearing up for some ambitious projects; he had just been joined by his Finnish girlfriend, Hanna Henrikka Ruax, who also died in the fire—extra condolences to her family, especially having to endure that devastating loss so far away; and he leaves behind twin daughters, Alex and Lucy, age four (ditto, please go
to donate to their education fund), not to mention: He was a friend of cineSOURCE.
Ghassan setting up an impromptu low-angle shot for a commercial. photo: courtesy I. Fernandez
As I write, Alex keeps stepping from the statistic side of the ledger into flesh and blood, becoming the actual person who burnt to death or died from smoke inhalation, undoubtedly embracing Hanna, in a corner of that horrid hell-hole, an image which keeps traumatizing my mind’s eye.
Alex’s was a stocky presence, with down-to-his-ass dreads, giving him weight, as it were, which he enhanced with a studied deadpan, derived from the streets of Brooklyn, but often broken by a big smile.
When I asked Alex if he ever had problems shooting on the streets of West Oakland, he admitted sometimes fearing for his equipment, although he always kept going, exploring, filming, regardless.
“The thing about Alex, he had this knack for getting to the heart and soul of people,” I was told by cinematographer/producer Inti Fernandez, who did the drone shots for the Museum shorts and was a close friend.
“He was a natural-born director—any age, ethnicity—he would get in your face but with grace. That was why he could go from New York to the Bay Area and to Finland and make these connections.”
Two years ago, when friends told him about opportunities and collaborations opening up in Oakland, Alex jumped on it, hoping to beat the New York rat race while also engineering a personal artistic shift.
Hanna Henrikka Ruax and Alex Ghassan. photo: courtesy I. Fernandez
“Everyone is coming west, you know, and there is a reason for it,” he said, when we sat down for a cineSOURCE interview in October, overlooking Lake Merritt one night, see complete text
“New York is a fucking machine,” he elaborated. “When you are there, you are a battery. As soon you are done, they replace your ass.”
"There is a global economy out here," he noted. "There is money to be made all over. There are stories to be told all over,” adding that he liked to use difference to his advantage.
“You also have to play with people’s minds a little bit,” he explained. “People are going to wonder what a fucking black dude from Brooklyn, who has lived in California, is doing in Finland, directing films. ’The director is from where? Why is he here?’”
“He was stacking Benjamins [making money] so he could rent a house and his daughters could visit him more frequently,” continued Fernandez. “That was one of the things we bonded over: being new fathers and recently divorced. We understood trying to provide, do the right thing and be creative.”
“For me, it is like now or never,” Alex opined. “I have been around so many prolific artists for so long. It is not jealousy thing—I am very happy for them. It reminds me. Don’t give up, don’t stop.”
“Just the other day, I’m on Instagram and I see Common, the rapper, had put up his latest video and my footage is in it. I did that five years ago and a rapper’s using that shit in 2016! What does that tell you?”
Ghassan with his twins, Lucy and Alex. photo: courtesy I. Fernandez
“I feel it is time to rebrand. Going to Finland is the first step in trying to make new work that feels like the old work but feels fucking amazing; that has no flaws, whether it is budget or time or creativity.” A good example of this is “
Sing It Away
”, his music video for the Finnish star songstress, Sandhja.
Alex first went to Estonia two years ago with Benjamin Michel, a close friend and KQED co-producer. There he met Hanna, an artist doing fashion and jewelry, who was well-connected in Finland, including to Sandhja.
“If you are focused you can make it,” goes Sandhja’s lyrics in "Sing It Away". “Nothing can steer you off your course,” a notion Alex took to heart.
“Oh man, Alex—he was a magnificent hustler in his craft and career,” noted Michel by phone. “He was a bull; he pushed for work, to do the things he wanted to do, like no one I have seen.”
“He was incredibly skilled as a visual artist. I loved working with him because he knew what would work, visually. Rarely, would he have a shot list or any sort of outline,” Michel continued. “Everything was in his head and it was clear. I mainly did cinematography, with him as director, but we also switched rolls.”
“We linked with Vita Pictura,” a production company in Estonia, “through a friend of mine from college, who was already working there. We just started talking, Alex pushing towards new projects in Europe. He went [with Hanna] to Finland, to make connections.”
“I am totally appropriating,” Alex said, in our interview. “I am going to go to Finland and to learn their shit and tell stories from their perspective, which is what a white dude would do if he went to Africa.”
“Alex just loved people, any type of person, it didn’t matter,” Michel said. “There were some weird looks [in Estonia] but there was also a lot love. He told me once, ‘People are people, no matter what someone does or what you think of that person—people are people.’”
Ghassan takes a smoke/arty photo break on a shoot. photo: I. Fernandez
“His daughters meant everything to him,” Michel added. “They would either come and see him or he would go there,” to Brooklyn, where they lived with their mother, Leslie. “That was why he was doing the work: first and foremost to leave something for them to know him by but also to survive. He talked about them a lot.”
“He FaceTimed with them multiple times a week,” Inti Fernandez said. “The last time they were here was back in August—he had just gotten a job with the SF court [filming proceeding and profiles]. I was really happy for him because the life of a freelancer is not exactly lucrative.”
“I was magnetized by Alex,” Fernandez elaborated. “I remember the first time we worked together, he was coming from another project. ‘I have my rig from KQED and I have these lenses,’ he said [by phone]. Then he runs into the building with whole rig on his shoulder, saying, ‘I’m here!’ That was his style, hand-held, [while] I would come with my glide-cam and my drone—all my shots are very posed.”
“I spoke at the vigil,” at the Lake Merritt Columns on Monday, December 5th, Alex said. “I normally never speak [but] I felt this overwhelming presence, pushing me to express the way I felt, to release the emotion. I felt him behind me, the same way a director is behind a DP.”
Alex’s plan was to split his time between Finland and Oakland, creating a cultural hybrid or bridge, much in the manner of the kids he would probably soon create with Hanna.
The cartoon Ghassan used on his website's wallpaper. illo: courtesy A. Ghassan
“She came out here just a week before. We were at another party with my girlfriend and there were about 30 people playing music, having fun. When we left the party, she said, 'Inti, text me ALL those pictures!'”
“Alex was always saying, ‘I am giving my job [at the courts] one year, then I am moving to Finland,” Fernandez said, adding Alex would also say, “I’m tired of hearing about my people getting shot.”
“When I hung out with him, whenever there was new report of a young, black kid getting killed, he would be crying. When people asked him why he was always posting these horrific things, he would say ‘Bro, I am on the menu!’
“It was First Friday,” Fernandez recalled about December 2nd, 2016, the gallery stroll evening in Oakland, which exploded from a few hundred folks, five years ago, to over 15,000, with over 50 galleries, street performers and vendors of every description.
“Hanna said she was too tired to go and my girlfriend and her were texting back and forth—I was in Miami."
"Alex texted me the event page,” to the ill-fated performance at the Ghost Ship warehouse in East Oakland district called Fruitvale, which also known for the eponymous film of 2013 about the killing of Oscar Grant.
“About 11:30 he texted me, ‘Enjoy.’ I think that was his last text. I am replaying it in my head. He texted me when the fire had already started.”
“If I had been here, I might have been at that party—or I could have said, ‘No, let’s not go,’” said Fernandez, slipping into hard-to-avoid survivor guilt.
Alex producing/directing/shooting at Oakland's Good Mother gallery, covering arts curator Vanessa Nyugen, 2015. photo: B. Michel
“My girlfriend was quick to blame that guy, [the negligent masterlease-holder], as a narcissistic asshole, who deserves to be prosecuted for murder,” he said, continuing down that tortuous path.
“It is systemic; there needs to be more checks and balances; people will live in the most inhospitable of places. Where there is one prick, there are probably 1000 around the Bay Area. Are you going to preemptively put them all in jail?”
“I went through all my pictures. The day I met [Alex] was December 28th, not even a year ago. We worked on a half-a-dozen projects; he slept at my house; he was a dear friend. I was talking to my chiropractor, telling him I was grieving. He said he was not ready to go.”
“I made fun of him. I do a lot of weddings. I am always looking for new shooters. When we became friends, I said, 'This is perfect.’ I just hired him for one wedding because the handheld camera is not going to fly for weddings. I got annoyed because some of the shots were unusable. I said, 'I guess this what I get for hiring a director to do a DP's job.'”
A lot of Alex's friends also asked, "'What is with this Finnish girl?’" according to Fernandez. "But Hannah had this great vibe, a child of the world, wherever she went, Jamaica, where ever. Alex just vibed with her—they were both internationalists.”
Visitors observe and light candles at the burnt out East Oakland warehouse where Ghassan, his girlfriend, Ruax, and 34 others perished. photo: D. Blair
“When he was in Finland and Estonia—people loved him: the fact he had dreads and was from New York and Oakland. He had social celebrity status. He was working with this hot pop artist—a super star. He made a bunch of music videos for her, and was always writing treatments.” (Also see NY Post obit
If nothing else, we can at least continue to flesh out and finish those treatments, stories and internationalist dreams, as well as warn friends to stay vigilant for shady situations.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 12, 2016 - 02:51 AM