Tens of thousands of Palestinians have languished for over 65 years in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, waiting to return home. Now, through his documentary, Mahdi Fleifel reveals an essential side of Palestinian exile that is often forgotten: the human side.
It was heartening that the Academy bestowed its highest honors this year to “Twelve Years a Slave,” a story about injustice and liberation, and recognizing America’s historic cruelty towards its people.
Maybe it is the curse of the oppressed to achieve their greatest recognition only when the primary injury of oppression is long over, after it can really help. Palestinians don’t have an easy time penetrating the Western cultural landscape. True, last year, the Academy short-listed “Five Broken Cameras,” the story of a village’s struggle against the security barrier in the West Bank, for Best Documentary. Although it didn’t win, the nomination generated attention.
But Mahdi Fleifel, the director of the 2012 documentary “A World Not Ours,” thinks that an essential side of the Palestinian story has been forgotten: the human side.
The global media feeds up stereotypes about aggressors, terrorists, or victims at best, he suggests in an interview with +972 Magazine from London. Even “Five Broken Cameras” is about the poor Palestinian villagers, little Davids struggling in the muddy hills of the West Bank against their Goliath. Their lives revolve around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What else is there?
On the face of it, Fleifel’s film about three generations of a Palestinian family living in the squalid in Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon since 1948 doesn’t seem like the best candidate to break the typical victimized image of Palestinians.
Somehow, it does. It turns out the refugee camp is a little universe. In “one square kilometer with over 70,000 refugees,” ironies and contradictions abound. As the film opens he tells us that the name Ein el-Helweh means “the sweet spring,” over a background of a cool saxophone riff; while the camera pans over pockmarked walls and the rubble of buildings. In this anachronism lives a community of colorful characters, with heroes and legends, humor and fools. There is Fleifel’s cantankerous grandpa, loafing in a porch chair in an alley, swatting at children like flies. Women in jeans and head coverings jeer at men for backing the losing team in the World Cup. The men, in turn, smoke joints in their clubhouse. Fleifel explains that it was important to him to capture the humor, which he sees as one reason many people relate to the film. And not just any people: “[The film] has a New York Jewish humor to it. I think Jews and Palestinians have a very similar sense of humor.”
When Fleifel was young, his father began obsessively documenting their lives on film, with him taking up the mantle as he grew older. There is a gentle implication that with so much upheaval, they clung to filming as an anchor. As part of his personal journey, Fleifel the younger waded through years of tape to carve out the documentary. “It was the need to make something I could show to my family. Worst case scenario,” he says wryly, “I thought I would watch it with my family.”
He didn’t anticipate the response – widespread acclaim, 30 prizes including one from the Berlin International Film Festival, and ongoing demands for showings, after it had already appeared in over 100 festivals.
Here is Fleifel’s journey: His parents met in the camp, where their parents landed after being expelled from the village of Saffuriyya in 1948. The family left for Dubai shortly afterwards, where Mahdi was born. They returned for a time, then moved to bucolic Denmark when the kids were still young. Today, Mahdi lives mainly out of his suitcase. In Denmark, he explains, he is Palestinian; in Ain el-Helweh, his thrilling childhood getaway, he is Danish. In London nobody cares.
The film follows four main male characters: the director; his grandfather, who could have left to join his family in Denmark, but didn’t; and two beloved peers – Fleifel’s mother’s uncle Sa’id, a quirky, anti-social man who doesn’t look much older than him, and his buddy Abu Iyad, a study of sadness bordering on anger, and energy with no channel for release.
Each of the three characters in the camp represents a choice, conscious or not, about how to survive and exist as full human beings in what is essentially captivity.
Abu Iyad finds a framework of sorts as a member of Fatah and part of the security detail of the camp. He has his posse, his nickname “Commander Iyad,” and the PLO office, a filthy hovel filled with cigarettes, a television and grimy mattresses, where the odor practically wafts off the screen.
The buoyant energy that leaps out of the characters draws in the viewer; you can’t help but enjoy them early on. We are enticed to relax and chuckle at the early scenes of a community torn by something as benign as World Cup frenzy. The blend of a jazz, folk and pop soundtrack conjure familiarity for the Western viewer.
But the affectionate world that Fleifel so loves to visit, “like Disneyland,” is quickly revealed as a sinister, ugly dystopia. Squabbles over the World Cup end in a violent fight one year, sending one man to the hospital with a brain injury. People choose their team loyalties at random, or politically: opposing Germany for its support for Israel, cheering Italy in forlorn gratitude over crumbs of support (“the reason being that they once dedicated the World Cup to us,” says Abu Iyad). They have no team of their own.
As the years of filming go by, the characters we like so much come undone.
The grandfather is bitter and inconsolable over the loss of his land in 1948. Why didn’t he leave the camp to join the family in Denmark, I ask? Fleifel speculates that he couldn’t bear to uproot himself again.
Abu Iyad, meanwhile, has a harder and harder time convincing himself that his Fatah identity gives him any purpose. He sees through the rhetoric of the liberation of his country and freedom; he suspects it is a means to keep him chained to a cause that serves none of his own goals as a human being. He eventually expresses bitter disillusionment with nationalist and political manipulation by Palestinian leaders.
In my talk with Fleifel, he interpreted Abu Iyad’s rage as disappointment that the Palestinian Fatah leadership succumbed to American and Israeli pressure at the expense of the original cause. Which is what, for the people of Ein el-Helweh? Is it a one-state, two-state dilemma, or UN Resolutions 194 and 242? Mahdi himself says he’s not very political. No one in the film is spewing slogans. They are living in an open-prison refugee camp with no government, no employment, no prospects and with rivers of garbage flowing in the streets when it rains. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what they want.
Abu Iyad eventually quits Fatah amid a torrent of expletives. He plots his escape – “the trip of a lifetime” – smuggling his way across borders, to travel and feel free.
But Abu Iyad’s freedom, ironically, can only come to fruition as a fugitive. He is legal nowhere. He travels undocumented, reaching Greece and eventually Serbia, where he is caught and imprisoned for several weeks. The journey is over, and he is sent back to Ein al-Helweh.
Sa’id, Mahdi’s mother’s uncle, is the most enigmatic and perhaps tragic character. Affectionate, wild-spirited and erratic with Mahdi, he flips in public, bumbling about the market place, selling crushed tin cans on a good day. Some view him as the village fool. He has chosen the opposite route of Abu Iyad – there is no fighting, no cause, no direction at all. Since his older brother died at the hands of Lebanese snipers, Sa’id has shrunk into a shadow of his former self, his impenetrable personality mirroring the shut doors of his life.
But it’s not that simple. Sa’id has a hobby: he raises pigeons. The muscular, chain-smoking, strange-talking man climbs over fences and punches brutal holes in the walls to jerry-rig hot lamps that keep the chicks warm. He coddles them with tenderness that is otherwise absent in the film, perhaps in lieu of romance (which is also nearly absent). He is in jail for committing no crime, bestowing his most human qualities on a tiny bird so that one of them, at least, can one day fly away. This is the image that has been seared most deeply in my mind.
Then there’s Fleifel, a protagonist and an observer. He lived the closest thing to a normal life outside the camp. But exile, it turns out, follows us around like an unsettled ghost, and Fleifel spends the film (and probably his life) looking for places that might be home. Ein el-Helweh represents warmth and affection despite or because of the mess; but his love is predicated on the ability to leave.
About his “normal” life, Fleifel tells me
I’m grateful – I know that I’m privileged in comparison to other family members, cousins, childhood friends, relatives who have no rights, still trapped in a refugee camp…but in a way I’m also an exile. It’s a condition, a state of being that’s very hard to understand, which is why I’m still living in a suitcase, still looking for a destination, unable to settle down and feel at home in one place.
He was not sufficiently at home in the camp in 2006, when war broke out between Israel and Lebanon during his summer visit. “Maybe I had lost my Palestinian cool,” he says in the film, but with little urge to gaze at rockets from the rooftops, he left – which he could– amidst conflicting feelings of shame. At one point, he travels to Israel, testing his own emotional limits in search of a lost past.
He too found his response to rootlessness, harnessing it for drive and perspective. “I’m also privileged to view the world from a place that transcends nationalism – I’m just a human being who breathes the air, looking for truth and justice,” he tells me.
These kinds of contradictions live inside Mahdi, not under the surface, and not harmoniously. The word “Kafka-esque” comes up frequently in our talk, for example, as he describes how he imagines his grandfather’s experience at the age of 16: “suddenly waking up one morning and having lost everything. You have no court of justice or police or any authority that you can go to and say, hey this is injustice, I have been robbed.”
It is hard for him to fathom what policymakers and the Western media conceive to be pragmatic political solutions. “I find it really kind of annoying when people ask ‘so what do you think of the two-state solution?’ – well I don’t think about it, because it’s a stupid, utopian idea. It doesn’t really make sense.”
Instead, as a filmmaker, he tells stories in order to find the universal themes.
Personally I feel that in the end, we’re breathing the same air, people can actually look each other in the eye and realize that – that they can actually live together in peace. But how can you have peace when you’re thinking of segregation? An idea that says, you have to be on this side of the fence, you’re on that side of the fence – how can you even conceive of peace?”
Beyond Fleifel’s personal story and beneath the larger story of the human spirit living in captivity, the film recalls a forgotten element of the Israeli Palestinian conflict: the real lives of 1.5 million refugees, according to UNRWA, living in refugee camps to this day. Or rather, it breathes life into something that has become an abstract line item bandied about by Beltway negotiators, a symbolic wand that local politicians wave to leverage its manipulative, rhetorical force.
The film takes its title from a novella by the Palestinian intellectual, writer and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) activist Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated at the age of 36 in 1972 by a car bomb in Beirut – most likely by Israel. But who remembers Palestinian society, intellectuals, literature?
The people in the camp know they are forgotten. Early on in the film, a friend of the grandfather’s drops by for coffee. “Look, he’s filming us right now!” he exclaims, musing: “He wants to show this to people in the West, you know.” And then he laughs.
“A World Not Ours” didn’t make this year’s Academy Awards; maybe it will next year (audiences can help). Still, the film appears amidst various attempts in Israeli society to expose the history of the Nakba, and to illustrate what it has meant. “By the Side of the Road,” is another recent documentary, reviewed here, by a young woman who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as a child to a West Bank settlement, before becoming an anti-occupation activist. She interviews Israelis who speak of their actions in 1948, and takes a Palestinian friend from Nablus back to his ancestral village. Ari Shavit’s controversial chapter on the city of Lydda (present-day Lod) has raised the issue too. A few years ago, an Israeli playwright created a stage version of Kanafani’s final story – “The Return to Haifa.”
Fleifel’s film, however, is about the present and how it bears the awful consequences of the past. “A World Not Ours” generates terrible urgency: it seems inevitable that the epilogue will tell us that Sa’id went crazy and Abu Iyad, after being sent back to the camp, committed suicide. Spoiler alert: they don’t, but this just feels like false, momentary relief.
Remembering how actual people are actually living, right now, should put to rest a common refrain that the West often levels at Palestinians. Thus, an American Jew I know read Ari Shavit’s book and in response to his treatment of the Nakba – more sympathetic than most American Jews are exposed to – said: “Get over it. It’s been 65 years. Move on.’” I tried to remind her that it’s hard to move on when one is still stateless. When the “world not ours,” refers to the whole world.