Larger than life — particularly where it counts, as he can’t mention often enough — the subject of Canadian “The Sandwich Nazi” is one of those classic obnoxious-in-a-lovable-way eccentrics who make natural camera subjects. Helmer Lewis Bennett’s prior “comic documentaries” were all shorts, and this first feature (expanding on a 10-minute 2012 original) comes close to exhausting its inexhaustibly profane protagonist’s charms even at a relatively slim 72 minutes. Still, this particular loudmouth should easily find his way into suitably open-minded festivals, with limited home-format sales likely further down the road.
We meet fiftysomething Salam Kahil at full flight in his Vancouver delicatessen, where one sign says “Best Sandwiches in North America!!” (as patrons attest), while another warns “This deli contains coarse language and nudity.” Indeed, he’s introduced in the middle of a reminiscence from “when I was a male escort,” and suffice to say it involves a candle used for purposes over than (literal, at least) illumination. Kahil calls himself an “Arab Muslim Lebanese with a Scandinavian deli with a French name in Canada.” But that description is pretty much the beginning and end of his PG-rated conversational repertoire.
Otherwise, it’s all sex, all the time, between more colorful tales of past personal exploits and offers for his clients to create their own XXX memories with him. “I’ve been treating my customers the same way for 26 years,” he shrugs, and it’s clear they’re used to it, enduring the constant graphic verbal (and occasionally visual) onslaught with varied hilarity, bewildered smiles and sometimes flat-out discomfort. (Perhaps those expressing the latter aren’t regulars.)
Most of them know that for all his bluster, he has a mile-wide generous side, notably bagging up food to hand out to the many down-and-out denizens of the downtown area each week. Between acts of charity and vulgarity, bits of personal history spill out: He ran away from his large, disapproving Beirut family at age 15, lived all over Europe, “took advantage of a lot of people” as a stud for hire (or sometimes for free, as when female acquaintances wanted a sperm donor without a husband attached), then entered a less illicit business when he “realized my beauty was fading” at age 29. Soon he’d built up a mini-empire of stores, but the hassle of managing employees (and worrying his antics might strike them as sexual harassment) prompted eventual reduction back down to a one-man, one-deli operation.
It’s hard to tell where “Sal’s” bragadoccio ends and his real-world sexploits begin, but regardless, he’s entertaining company. A modicum of drama is introduced when he suffers health problems after a couple of traffic accidents, curtailing his ability to run the deli that provides him not just with a living, but with a stage and a loyal audience. There’s also a late trip back home to Lebanon (his first such in decades), where he has a warm reunion with most family members but reopens the wound over his purported childhood molestation by an older brother.
“The Sandwich Nazi” doesn’t integrate these narrative elements very gracefully. It’s odd when a few unexpected interests of Salam’s (collecting original artworks, playing the cello) that might’ve broadened our understanding of his character are dismissed after the briefest consideration. The film is mostly content, like its subject, to stay on the potty-mouthed, monologuing surface. That’s fine so far as it goes, yet there’s enough suggestion of complexity here to make you wish Bennett had dug a little deeper.
Assembly is basic but competent.
SXSW Film Review: 'The Sandwich Nazi'
Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 10, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival —competing.) Running time: 72 MIN.
(Documentary — Canada) A Lewis Bennett production. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Calum Macleod, Lewis Bennett, Benjamin Taft.
Directed by Lewis Bennett. Camera (color, HD), Benjamin Taft; editors, Bennett, Macleod; music, Jake Handy; sound, Mark Lazeski; second unit directors, Macleod, Taft; second unit camera, Lindsay George.
Salam Kahil, Annette McArthur, Manuel Huespe, Steve Bekessy, Lisa Bekessy.