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People in Film: Mahdi Fleifel

Jun 26, 2013

Director Mahdi Fleifel’s ‘A World Not Ours’ – see our take on the film here – is in heavy rotation on the international film festival circuit. DFI caught up with him in Paris.

DFI: You worked with a huge amount of your father’s home movies and your own video diary footage to create ‘A World Not Ours’. What was the process like, finding the story that the final film depicts?
Mahdi Fleifel: I felt like I was working more like a sculptor than as a writer. It was like carving my way into all this footage. I had 150 hours, so I was like a sculptor starting with a big piece of marble. From reading how sculptors work, I understand it’s something that is conjured from memory, which is kind of what I was doing, working with all the stories I had in mind. It was a very organic process. It was a close collaboration with my editor, Michael Aaglund, who was brilliant and really tuned into what I wanted to say and the anecdotes I was sharing. I trust his taste and talent, so it was a great collaboration.

DFI: How long did this sculpting take?
MF: We kind of lost track of time. It started around November of 2010 and by the time we finished it was August or September of 2012. So almost two years. We were both just out of film school and we both needed to do something that could get us started. I had all this material and he had time, so we said, Let’s do something that we can both stand behind and care about. We also allowed ourselves to take time off, just to maintain a sense of clarity and to digest all the material. Michael would go and work on another project and I would teach or write the narration. We were following our intuition, not restricted by deadlines or having to deliver material. We didn’t really put any pressure on ourselves and there was no one else imposing pressure on us. This makes it sound like it was all very relaxed, but we had nightmares …

DFI: The film’s narration, which is your own voice-over, is very gentle, and at times it’s as though you’re discovering the camp and your place in it as the film unfolds. It’s very personal. How did you make that choice?
MF: I think it’s maybe just inherent in my sensibilities, and the things I grew up watching and loving and admiring as a kid. Stuff like ‘The Wonder Years’ and some of Woody Allen’s films, whether it was ‘Radio Days’ or whatever. I’ve always loved voice-over in films – the idea of a storyteller, of someone guiding us through a universe. This was my story, so I wanted to [be the guide].

DFI: You could have chosen to make ‘A World Not Ours’ a political rant, but you didn’t. This is being recognised as one of the great strategies of the film. How did that come about?
MF: It didn’t feel like the right thing to do because it would go against my experience of Ain el-Hilweh. Most of the documentaries and films that I’ve seen about Palestinians end up with the same old representation – the burning olive trees and the victimised voice-over and the oud music. It’s like, Here we go again… We’ve seen it so many times. I believe it feeds into a familiar representation that is comforting, in a disturbing way. We want to see it [to reinforce] the familiar image we have –the stone-throwing kid and the machine-gunning Israeli. But this is not what I grew up seeing as a Palestinian. I never lived under occupation. My parents were refugees in Lebanon. The checkpoints I’ve known about throughout my life were Lebanese. So I have a completely different experience as a Palestinian [to what I see onscreen], and I wanted to talk about that.

My film came out kind of on the heels of ‘Five Broken Cameras’, which saw so much success. Not to diss ‘Cameras’, I think it’s a strong film, but in many ways it’s the things that film does that I wanted to go against with mine. There’s a tendency out there to say, Well, we’ve had our Palestinian film for now, so let’s wait another five years. I thought, My film is going to be a huge disaster; no one is going to want to watch it. We’ve just had this film [‘Cameras’], and it went all the way to the Oscars; why do we need another Palestinian story? I’ve been relieved and surprised that people are responding to ‘A World Not Ours’.

DFI: It seems that while you’re always behind the camera, you never appear in your film in the present – only in the older footage. Can you talk a bit about that?
MF: I do have a few cameos here and there, but I’m glad that no one notices. I did do a few scenes where I would set up the camera and then interact with it – be part of the scene with my granddad. That was influenced by Ross McElwee and his work. He does that a lot and I like to do the clowning thing, so I thought I’d try it out. But in the edit, it just didn’t feel [right]. I wanted the film to be about the people I was talking about. It’s not about me; I’m the one who is giving you access to this world, but the film is really about these [other] people. So I wanted to get out of my own way, if you want. I think very few people manage to pull it off – being the narrator and being at the centre of the story. The viewer can get nausea (laughs) – it becomes a bit narcissistic. Someone like McElwee or Allen does it well, because there isn’t a sense of vanity, they kind of expose themselves and it’s kind of fragile. And I like that. But sometimes it’s more about ‘Me, look at Me!’, and I didn’t want this film to be like that.

DFI: There’s a very powerful sequence in the film, when you are on a high-school trip to Israel. It’s a moment where you look back and recognise your own displacement for the first time.
MF: [That experience] has been a very complicated thing for me to understand. I was 17 years old and I had all these ideas in my head that I’d grown up with – about this place being the lost homeland. Yet I found myself standing there as a guest. I didn’t know how to relate. We visited Yad Vashem [the Holocaust museum] and had this experience with candles and mirrors and a voice reciting [the names of] all the victims of the Holocaust. I came out and everyone was being sick or crying. I stood there thinking, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not crying?

In retrospect, I realise there was a context that I wasn’t able to understand at the time. I had a completely different upbringing [from my classmates]. The first nine years of my life, I lived in a world where the discourse and stories were different. So it was very strange for me, standing in this place, hosted by people who, as far as I had been told, had taken my grandparents’ land, who are now in this refugee camp further down the [road].

It’s only later on that I’ve managed to understand what was going on. I was the first member of my generation of my family to visit this place that is supposed to be our home. I had all these memories in my head of Israeli soldiers torturing Palestinians as opposed to Germans torturing [Jews]. That was what I had grown up with.

A lot of people say, How dare you compare the Holocaust to something as minuscule as the Palestinians’ suffering? Then people start to compare ‘sufferings’. And that of course is ridiculous. I was trying to be really honest about my own experience and say, This is what it was like for me. I’m not sure if that answers your question.

DFI: It does. Part of the reason this sequence has such impact goes back to this idea of not being in political-rant mode, which allows you to open up the space to have this sequence be so powerful. There’s another very affecting scene where your grandfather comes home from the doctor. He’s tired and irritable and wants to be left alone. It’s very intimate – a bit uncomfortable even. Why did you include it?
MF: I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had access to who my granddad really is. He’s this old man, he’s very traditional. I’ve never really had an intimate moment with him where I feel like he’s allowed himself to really be himself. Even when I ask him, Granddad, tell me things about your childhood, about what you used to do, he’s very calculated. Maybe because he was kind of cornered [in this sequence], I felt like that was one of the very few moments where I could really see him – not as this image of ‘my grandfather’, but as this man who’s got his own concerns and problems and worries. All he really wants is to have some peace. I felt there was something more ‘him’ – me looking at him being himself, without all the facades and the layers.

DFI: Have you shown the film to your friends in Ain el-Hilweh?
MF: I haven’t yet. We had a couple of screenings in Beirut and they’ve done well. People have started a buzz, they’re using social media, which is good. If we could hope for any change, it would be in Lebanon. We’re hoping we can release it. Thre’s a distribution deal but we have to go through a lot of bureaucracy to see if we can put the film out as is. And I’d hate to cut out the ‘real’ bits.

In terms of screening it in the camp … Abu Eyad has obviously seen the film and he’s very proud of it. He saw it with an audience in Berlin – in fact, he’s still in Berlin. He stayed and asked for asylum, so the film has changed his life to a degree. It feels like a good end to the film – not to the story of Ain el-Hilweh, but to Abu Eyad’s character. Some people from the camp attended the screening and they loved it, but I think people [there] may not contextualise it – it might be more like a social club event, where people are just kind of looking at a home movie – you know, ‘Look who’s in the background!’ I also think it could cause a lot of trouble so I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. One of my projects for later this year is to go and sit with my grandfather and my Uncle Said and show it to them – you know, say, Here’s this thing that I’ve done.

DFI: What are you working on next?
MF: I’m working on a few things. I’m like a fisherman with a number of poles in the water … the first one that shakes I go to. I’m working on a project that is sort of a continuation of ‘A World Not Ours’ – it’s a exploraion of exile in a Greek context, in a society that is melting down. And I’m working on a project about undoing exile, a satire set in a refugee camp. It’s set during the day when the UN officially announces that the refugees have been granted the right to return, and how people respond to that.

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