We speak to the Palestinian filmmaker who’s documented the highly personal trials and tribulations experienced by those left stateless across the world
“One person was asking me what are we going to do about all these refugees coming here? But at the end of the day, you’re asking the wrong person. I don’t have any answers.”
These are not the words of Angela Merkel or some exasperated political analyst, but of Mahdi Fleifel, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. I can see why he might be frustrated as it seems that his experience of documenting life in the Ain El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon has, in the eyes of some journalists, qualified him to sort out the entire crisis in the Middle East. And having just won the Silver Bear in Berlin for his latest film A Man Returned, he’s understandably tired of the media circus.
“I have to admit I woke up this morning and remembered I had to do the interview and thought, I just don’t want to talk about that film anymore but I’m hoping that you’ll have something different to add to that,” he says.
So there’s no pressure, then. Fortunately, there’s a lot to talk about – mainly how over three wonderful documentaries he’s managed to bring out dark comedy from the unlikely subject of daily life in a refugee camp. The latest follows the plight of Reda, a young man who managed to flee Lebanon in hope of freedom but only got as far as Greece, from where he was deported. He returns as a heroin addict, disillusioned but determined to make a go of it back in the camp by marrying his childhood sweetheart.
In many ways it is the final act of a trilogy. In A World Not Ours we meet Mahdi’s granddad cursing kids for smashing their football against his house, and see how his friends get caught up with World Cup fever for a brief moment every four years – with the stateless refugees picking teams to support. It was the result of years of filming when Mahdi returned to the camp to see the family and friends he left behind when he was able to emigrate with his family to Denmark. It’s like a kitchen sink drama, especially in the family squabbles between his granddad and uncle, albeit one where everyone is displaced and unable to work, stuck in perpetual limbo. In Xenos we later see his friend Abu Eyad living rough in Greece. And now we’re back where it all started with this intense character study.
Have you deliberately focused on personal stories rather than trying to sum up the bigger political picture?
Mahdi Fleifel: I’m a storyteller. I’m drawn to characters dealing with things we can identify with but somewhere we’re not familiar with because it is a different part of the world. I find it really hard to tell stories in Northern Europe where I live and personally love, where it is comfortable and safe. I wouldn’t know what stories to tell up here. I’m more connected to what’s happening in the camp and there’s an urgency and real importance to document that.
Do you think the media has a tendency to dehumanise refugees?
Mahid Fleifel: Yeah, they’re seen as invaders from Mars. But if people really have a concern about people coming over here, the solution is to stop burning their homes. The reason they come here is not to take your jobs or take your house – I’m talking the rightwing press now by the way – it is because it is safe. People migrate to where it is safe. Birds migrate to safety. That’s why people come here. It’s not rocket science. And this is our story, a human story.
How do Palestinians react to Syrians fleeing to their camp?
Mahid Fleifel: It is causing tension as you have one square kilometre of living space, which cannot expand. So you can only build up vertically. But what are you going to do when you keep piling people into this chicken farm? It’s natural that there will be tension and lots of fights.
Do you feel like the Palestinians’ story has been forgotten in all this?
Mahid Fleifel: It is true, there is a lot of focus on Syrians as that’s now the ‘hot thing’. So if you’re a Palestinian and you manage to reach the shores of Europe you don’t have the same privileges .A lot of Palestinians are now saying they’re Syrians, playing on the accent, getting fake documents, just because they know they will find safety. Palestinians are seen like a thing of the past, you’re out of date” he jokes, “You’re not as cool as other refugees anymore.
Was it a conscious decision to use humour in an attempt to soften the message?
Mahid Fleifel: I wouldn’t say consciously, it was more intuitively. You just go with what feels right. There’s a particular grammar that goes with storytelling. You can’t just have a down beat, another down beat and then one more without balancing things up. It’s like painting, you put a little bit of black and then a bit of red, which stands out.
One of these vivid red, stand-out moments for me is where we see Reda with a needle hanging out of his hand desperate to heat up his heroin as he gets embroiled in an argument with his mother about when he can use the stove. What do you do in these situations?
Mahid Fleifel: To be honest with you I’m usually so fascinated by what the characters get up to that I just let them do their thing. Really, I’m just observing them. But obviously in the edit you can take things a step further. But I don’t direct them or tell them what to do. I’m just in a sort of trance observing life. I’m not your trickster documentarist.
We see Reda dealing drugs throughout the film, even on his wedding day. Likewise, in A World Not Ours, recreational drug use plays a big part in people’s lives. How widespread is the heroin dealing in the camp?
Mahid Fleifel: It is now getting more and more widespread with the wars in Afghanistan and Syria changing things there. Heroin is now easily accessible in Lebanon and the camps as a result of that.
“People migrate to where it is safe. Birds migrate to safety. That’s why people come here. It’s not rocket science. And this is our story, a human story”
Is that almost inevitable when the refugees have no opportunity to work?
Mahid Fleifel: Yeah, in Lebanon Palestinians are completely barred from society. There are around 72-73 professions in which they are not allowed to work. They are refugees and have to remain like that.
Have you ever shown the refugees you document your films?
Mahid Fleifel: Actually I haven’t shown it to people in the camp yet and I’m not sure I could show it openly like that. It shows Reda dealing and selling drugs so that would be evidence – and that was part of the deal of making the film, that it wouldn’t be shown inside Lebanon, even at a festival.
Do you have any plans to move into fiction?
Mahid Fleifel: That’s the plan. I studied fiction at school and I come from that background of classical storytelling. So a lot of these films you’ve seen will form the basis of my next feature. It should sum up all the work I’ve been doing. I’ve been working on it for the last four years and it is set in Athens.
What made you decide on Greece rather than the camp?
Mahid Fleifel: I don’t decide where to set the story. The story decides. I discovered the story of people using Greece as the gateway to Europe and just thought there was a story there but I do think that it is the perfect place to tell this. You know? It’s a modern civilization undergoing social and economic collapse. Greece is the foundation for all our ideas of civilizations and democracy – where else could I tell it?