Interview: A World Not Ours’s Director Mahdi Fleifel
A World Not Ours, screening in ADFF's Documentary
Competition, is remarkably intimate glimpse inside the Ain
El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon, home to 70,000 displaced
Palestinians in one square Director Mahdi Fleifel, who was born in
Dubai but grew up in the camp, is a guest at the Festival (which
supported his film through the SANAD fund) and we took the
opportunity to ask him a few questions about the making of an
important new Arab documentary.
At what point while gathering all these home videos did
you decide to make the film?
Well, the whole idea started out as a short documentary about the
World Cup gatherings at Ain El Helweh in 2010, and I thought if I
didn't have enough material I'll integrate some of the other
footage I have about family and friends into it. But then, when I
saw that I had about 75 hours of footage, the idea started to
expand, and I started to follow the life of my friend, Abu Eyad, in
a process of about six weeks. I realised then that there is
definitely potential here for a longer film. So when it came down
to it, I sat with the editor and we went through everything - he
was quite reluctant at first - but then I brought in the rest of
the footage that I had collected throughout the years and it
amounted to another 70 hours or so. We're talking about
approximately 150 hours of film here. A couple of months later, we
decided to take this forward and make it into this bigger story
about life in Ain El-Helweh, and the focus of the film changed. The
first assembly was about 3 hours long, and when I saw it on screen,
it all started to take shape and we just knew where this was going
and we started writing the script. I knew what to say and it all
flowed. The film dictated itself really.
Can you talk about your unusual choices of music for the
film? The music gives a humorous or sarcastic flavor to the film,
defying audience expectations, especially given such heavy subject
The music reflects my own experiences as a Palestinian, and it was
a unique experience, therefore the unique choice of music. Growing
up I was influenced by Hollywood-style music, Western music,
classics, jazz and so on. It was the most natural choice for me to
go in that direction, for me to reach out to what was most familiar
to me and integrate it into the film. This is the music that I
relate to and love. When I watch a fight scene, I think of films
that have influenced me growing up, and I'd think this is the kind
of music that was used during the fight scene in Raging
Bull, so this is the kind of music I went for and so on.
No, it may not match the expectations that audiences have of such
a topic or such a documentary, but I believe you should always take
your audiences on a ride when watching a film, and not limit
yourself to expectations.
How do you feel about the Palestinian cause? We've heard
a lot of different perspectives from family and friends of yours,
but I'd like to hear yours.
It's a cause. Simple as that. If you have a heart, and it beats,
if you have a sense of justice, then it makes complete sense. When
people are forcefully exiled and dispossessed, then they have the
right to fight and ask for their rights as human beings. It's not
rocket science. And I don't necessarily mean the returning to
Palestine, this whole idea that God will free the land and give it
back to us and so on. God is not an estate agent. We need to be a
little more realistic; the Palestine that my grandfather talks
about in the film is not the Palestine that exists today, and it
will never be. But justice will prevail. I definitely believe
Did you feel a sense of detachment while gathering the
When you switch on to storytelling mode, you have to take a step
back. I'm looking at friends and family through a screen, so
automatically they become characters in a story. You start to
perceive them differently, and you start to approach the whole film
in that sense.
Have your friends and family in Ain El-Helweh seen the
film yet? Do they know about it? What do they think?
You know, when family and friends watch a film like that, they
look at it as a home movie almost. So they sit there pointing out
the people they know, making comments and remarks on how someone is
dressed, or how someone looks, or where someone's living now and so
on. However, when the film screened at the Toronto International
Film Festival, I was very pleased with the results and reactions. I
feel the audiences responded very positively to the film and
related to the characters on the screen. I would not show this film
in the camp at Ain El-Helweh though, as I don't think it would go
down well. It's quite heavy, and can be misinterpreted, and might
get people in trouble. However, I'm more keen to show it in the
Arab world than I am to show it at the camp. If this film can make
any sort of change, then I'll be content. It's important for this
film to find exposure outside of the camp, because it won't do
anything if it is only shown in the camp.
At one point in the film when you were visiting
Palestine for the first time you said, "Palestine is somewhere in
Ain El Helweh" - that really resonated with me, and I think
Palestine is somewhere in every part of the world now, wouldn't you
Definitely. Palestine may not be a state anymore, but it is a
state of being, a state of mind.
How do you feel about Palestine, the right of return,
having our homeland returned to us one day? Optimistic, hopeful, or
not so much anymore?
I think it would be the most absurdly funny situation if that were
You said at one point when you first left for Denmark,
that although you didn't tell anyone, you wanted to be back at Ain
El-Helweh. Do you still feel that way?
When I was a kid, living at Ain El-Helweh was an adventure. It
was different, it was great. Going to Denmark was very boring in
comparison. But do I still feel that way? No, I don't.
Do you ever imagine how your life would have been if you
had lived in Ain El-Helweh?
All the time. But I don't know how it would have turned out to be
honestly. I really don't know. It's a small neighbourhood there,
you know? People feel like they have the right to interfere in
everyone else's business, there is no privacy, no room to grow as
an individual. So I don't know what role I would have played.
A World Not Ours screens at VOX Cinemas on Monday 15
October at 9:15 pm and on Thursday 18 October at 1:45 pm.