'Corner Store' Gives Intimate Look Into Store Owner's Life

Photo: Palestinian corner store owner Yousef Elhaj makes his life in San Francisco, over 7,000 miles away from his family in Bethlehem.
Corner Store/Courtesy
Palestinian corner store owner Yousef Elhaj makes his life in San Francisco, over 7,000 miles away from his family in Bethlehem.

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The sign above the entrance reads "Church St. Market" in plain, tell-all letters. A cursory sweep of the camera reveals the usual suspects, from sandwich counters and liquor shelves to rows upon rows of pharmaceutical products.

For Palestinian corner store owner Yousef Elhaj, whose family lives 7,368 miles away in Bethlehem, each new morning brings both familiarity and hope. His story forms the basis for Katherine Bruens's documentary "Corner Store," which was featured as a work-in-progress screening at San Francisco's annual IndieFest.

Situated at the crossroads of 15th and Church between San Francisco's Mission and Castro Districts, the film's titular subject looks and feels no different from any other convenience deli in the city. Like other corner stores, its significance to the local neighborhood transcends its unremarkable facade. Working 16 hours a day behind the counter, Yousef manages his store quietly but passionately, straightening shelves and adjusting deli cases with admirable dedication.

Bruens and cinematographer Sean Gillane capture Yousef's personality through an array of documentary footage, observing him through both professional and personal lenses. Lively interactions with friends and customers are contrasted beautifully with simpler moments such as when he is giving a tour of his sleeping quarters, a claustrophobic one-room abode situated behind the corner store. When he introduces wife and children through a collection of photographs, his eyes silently acknowledge that they remain close to his heart half a world away.

While Yousef's situation renders him both an everyman and an anomaly, his genial tone and self-assured posture add to the film's authenticity. When he boards a plane to visit his family in the West Bank, we look forward to the reunion as much as he does. As "Corner Store" transitions from the New World to the Old, Bruens and Gillane imbue the documentary with a more cinematic visual palette, capturing the naturalistic beauty of Yousef's reunion with his wife and children.

In seeking to explore their subjects in greater detail and enlighten audiences with their findings, documentarians are essentially trailblazers. With "Corner Store," Bruens has crafted a poignant ode to the immigrant working class and the intrinsic bond shared between community and national identity. "I was touched by the neighborhood story, and looking around, I found the most beautiful, charming store owner to document in Yousef," Bruens explained as she stood alongside Gillane during the post-screening question-and-answer session at the Roxie Theatre.

On the film's development and Yousef's voluntary participation, Bruens candidly evoked her subject's personality. "He was too polite not to let us follow him for 14 months and film a documentary about him," she admitted with a smile. Added Gillane: "Neither of us speak Arabic, so it was a challenge at first." As a two-person crew, their collaborative effort in producing "Corner Store" is both impressive and inspiring.

The night concluded with one final surprise. In the back of the screening room sat Yousef Elhaj himself, accompanied by his wife and children. One by one, the members of the audience stood up and participated in a standing ovation. As the crowd dispersed, I walked down the aisle to congratulate Yousef on his successful reunion with his loved ones. We shook hands. He looked at me and smiled, wisdom and humility radiating through his world-weary yet twinkling eyes.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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