A scene from A World Not Ours by Mahdi Fleifel.
A World Not Ours, Mahdi Fleifel’s feature-length documentary currently making the festival circuit, focuses on the Ein al-Hilwe refugee camp in south Lebanon. What was a once temporary place of refuge after the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 — the Nakba or catastrophe — today has a new cemetery to accommodate the growing number of dead.
Fleifel’s own footage, and that recorded by his father, is the basis of this film, offering deeply personal insight into the themes of exile and identity.
Fleifel, who narrates throughout in an upbeat tone, admits to inheriting his father’s obsession with documenting everything. The elder Fleifel was motivated by the desire to stay connected with his siblings in Ein al-Hilwe after he moved his family to Dubai to seek out a better life. But the younger Fleifel, a second-generation refugee currently living in London, says that he hoped to find through filming a “faint hope that I could predict a sense of belonging to somewhere.”
Fleifel was born in Ein al-Hilwe, and though his family moved away when he was a child, it was the place that he would return to and find his extended family each summer. This includes his sweet tea-pushing grandfather, who was born in northern Palestine and forced out at 16, refusing to leave the camp so as to not normalize the loss of his homeland by establishing a life elsewhere.
Happy childhood memories of World Cup euphoria are what Fleifel came to associate with the camp: “To me, going to Ein al-Hilwe was better than going to Disneyland.” But as Fleifel matured and his consciousness ripened, he realized that Ein al-Hilwe is “just a grey old refugee camp” populated by tens of thousands of people in a constant state of waiting who “weren’t here by choice.”
A World Not Ours is specific to the especially poor conditions endured by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whose movement in and out of the camps is regulated by the army and security forces, and who are banned from working in most professions. Lebanon was also at one time an arena of the Palestinian armed liberation struggle, but in Ein al-Hilwe today, Palestinians have turned the guns on each other; the everyday violence in the camp is casually recounted by one boy in the film who shrugs it off as normal.
Fleifel, whose refugee ID card expired when he was a child and therefore has to explain his purpose at a Lebanese checkpoint each time he enters the camp, is alienated from the place he was born by virtue of his privilege.
The tragic hero of this film, Abu Eyad, offers a contrast to his dear friend Fleifel. Nicknamed after a Palestinian commander assassinated in Tunis, Abu Eyad passes the day by hanging around the Fatah party office with other unemployed young men and patrolling the camp at night.
Trapped in the overcrowded camp in Lebanon, with no career prospects or the financial means to marry, receiving only a pittance from the Fatah party, Abu Eyad is resentful of the corruption of the Palestinian leadership who he says sold out the revolution.
“I wish Israel would just massacre us all,” he declares, insisting that Fleifel film his provocative statement. “We destroyed ourselves,” he says, adding, “I don’t want to return to Palestine.”
The impact that statelessness and sacrifice without reward have bore down on this community is also demonstrated by Fleifel’s great uncle, Said. Actually the half-brother of Fleifel’s octogenarian grandfather, Said still has his youth but no future.
Once the pride of Fleifel and his family, Said is now considered the camp’s village idiot, acting the buffoon in public and shunning human company for his pet birds and pigeons. Said’s brother Jamal, famed for planting explosives around the camp during an Israeli invasion when he was only 13, was shot in the neck by a sniper when the camp was surrounded by the Lebanese army.
After more than a year in the hospital, Jamal passed away at 23; Fleifel believes that this is what broke Said.
Abu Eyad and Said represent the fate Fleifel escaped when his father took the family to the Gulf in the 1980s. When Abu Eyad tells Fleifel that the latter’s former sweetheart Maya has married, one gets the sense that it would be absurd for Fleifel to imagine marrying her himself — that the camp is a memory that he occasionally visits but no longer represents his reality.
However, the acknowledged tension between Fleifel and Abu Eyad at the heart of the film may have been even more palpable had Fleifel emerged from behind the camera. Because A World Not Ours is a lesson in contrasts — the lives of Abu Eyad and Said versus that of Fleifel — Fleifel is a main character but an unseen one, barring the occasional bits of archive footage from his childhood. (This includes footage from Fleifel’s time on an exchange program trip which was heavy on Zionist indoctrination; Fleifel is the only member of his family who has managed to go back to Palestine.)
Other artistic choices do give the film its edge, such as the discordant use of jazzy Western music during the exposition of Fleifel’s Palestinian family story, and the bittersweet footage of a stoic young bride leaving her family in the camp for her new husband in Europe. Fleifel’s compassionate portraits of members of this community offer narratives of exile and uprootedness that are seldom heard but experienced by thousands and necessitate wider exposure.
It is worth noting that after A World Not Ours won the Berlin International Film Festival’s Peace Film Award this year, there was a backlash in the right-wing German press — discussing the reality of Palestinian refugees and their right of return is still a taboo, making films like this one all the more important.
But the value of Fleifel’s film is not limited to educating the general public about the situation of Palestinian refugees today. A World Not Ours just may signal a trend in artistic output by other grandchildren of Nakba survivors who ask what it means to be Palestinian, and to where they belong, after multiple generations of exile.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.