On Tuesday, August 19, 2014, filmmakers Mahdi Fleifel and Patrick Campbell of the POV documentary A World Not Ours and Dr. Sari Hanafi took your questions about the Palestinian refugee crisis and the making of a film about the Ain El Helweh refugee camp.
POV: Welcome to POV’s live chat with the filmmakers Mahdi Fleifel and Patrick Campbell of A World Not Ours and special guest Dr. Sari Hanafi. We’ll get started at 1 PM ET (10 AM PT).
POV: Please feel free to post your questions ahead of time and we’ll queue them up for the filmmakers…
POV: We’re going to get started now. Welcome, Mahdi, Patrick and Dr. Hanafi. Thank you for joining us!
Patrick Campbell: Thanks for having us
Mahdi Fleifel: Hello everyone, it’s nice to be here
Dr. Sari Hanafi: hello from the amazing city of Istanbul!!!
POV: Mahdi, can you briefly describe your film and your family’s relationship to Ain El Helweh?
Mahdi Fleifel: My family are Palestinian refugees originally from Saffouri, a village near Nazareth in historical Palestine, now Israel…
Mahdi Fleifel: In 1948 my grandparents were forced to leave and set up a temporary home in southern Lebanon, Ain El Helweh
Mahdi Fleifel: Today Ain El Helweh is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and both my parents were born there.
POV: Great, thanks. Your prior experience filmmaking was in fiction. What made you decide to try a documentary and when did you decide to turn your home video footage into a full-length film?
Mahdi Fleifel: I never really felt that I was doing a documentary when working on A WORLD NOT OURS….
Mahdi Fleifel: I was telling a story, and I remember telling my editor that I wanted it to feel like a good long episode of THE WONDER YEARS, which is one of my favorite series
Mahdi Fleifel: I was writing a fiction story about the world cup set in Ain El Helweh and eventually came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to have the real people – my real grandfather, friends, family members in the film as opposed to trying to cast it with actors
Mahdi Fleifel: Somehow it was never really planned, but was meant to be all along…. if that makes sense.
POV: And Patrick, how did you become involved in the making of the film? Why did you decide to work on this project?
Patrick Campbell: I started working with Mahdi when he was just starting to edit and get his head around what this film was becoming…
Patrick Campbell: My academic background is in anthropology and sociology and I have been very interested in Palestine since I was in university so when the chance to work on something like this came along I felt it was a perfect match.
POV: How did you handle working on a film about a subject that was so personal to the filmmaker?
Patrick Campbell: It was difficult, I think sometimes me and Mike (our editor) had to ‘gang’ up on Mahdi to make tough decisions. We had a lot of discussions about what should stay and what should go, after some cajoling Mahdi became better at distancing himself. I think it was a good process to go through because every decision really had to be justified.
POV: How did you choose your characters and decide which subjects to include in the film?
Patrick Campbell: There were always the core characters of Mahdi, his grandfather, Said, and Abu Eyad so I feel it was more a case of stripping back the story and removing characters that weren’t really serving the story of the film.
Mahdi Fleifel: I agree…
Mahdi Fleifel: Of course I would have loved to have more family members, like my auntie who is a lot like the Mother Sister character in Do The Right Thing, and I really wanted her to stay in the film, but in the end you have to make a distinction between the personal and the universal and she had to go – as a ‘character’ in a story, she just didn’t ‘work’… but these are some of the decisions you have to make when you are telling a story
POV: Thank you. We now have a question from a POV viewer:
Comment From Katherine: Hi Mahdi, I saw your film at the Boston Palestine Film Festival at MFA last year and again last night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Can you tell us a bit about what’s happened to your family characters since you finished the film?
Mahdi Fleifel: Hi there, thanks for watching it twice!
My grandfather is good, I saw him last month. He is surprisingly on good form for someone his age (now 84). Said is still doing the same, collecting metal and breeding pigeons…
Mahdi Fleifel: Abu Eyad is now in Berlin. When we screened the film in Berlinale 2013, we worked with the festival to invite him and they did a fantastic job dealing with the embassy and got him a travel document and visa to come and present the film with us. It was very moving and the audiences were surprised and joyous to see him after the screening. He then decided to stay, seek political asylum and is now still in Berlin. His situation isn’t great, he is still in ‘process’ awaiting to get residence papers etc. But he is hopeful.
POV: Great, thanks.
POV: Dr. Hanafi, can you describe your experience researching the Palestinian diaspora?
Comment From Katherine Hanna: thanks
Dr. Sari Hanafi: well i can talk now specifically about the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is in the worse situation of all Pal refugees worldwide as the Lebanese authority deprive them from the basic human rights like right to work or to own property….
Dr. Sari Hanafi: in addition, shelters in camps are in very bad and so crowded ..
Dr. Sari Hanafi: in spite of that they are doing well socially and no problem between them and the surrounding Lebanese neighborhood.
POV: How similar is the situation in Ain El Helweh to other refugee camps you have studied?
Dr. Sari Hanafi: Ain El Helweh is a huge camp of 65000 inhabitants and looks like a prison as the Lebanese army control its entrances. in this terms it is not typical .. but the poverty rates inside it is almost similar in other camps in Lebanon
Dr. Sari Hanafi: also it is similar to other camps as there is no municipal power inside. Only popular committee but which is not recognized by the Lebanese authority
Dr. Sari Hanafi: so imagine a locality of 65,000 inhabitants without municipality !!!
POV: Has the Palestinian refugee crisis changed in recent years?
Dr. Sari Hanafi: well refugee problem started in 1948 when the Israeli authority expelled them and prohibiting thier return and since then as there are discriminatory laws against them the situation is from worse to worse…
Dr. Sari Hanafi: migration to petro-Gulf area or Europe becomes the only exit strategy as we saw in the film…
Dr. Sari Hanafi: as far the legal situation is as such i believe camps will become a ticking bomb areas
Mahdi Fleifel: I agree with Dr. Hanafi, it is hard for many people to remember the root to the problem, the starting point so to speak. I get emails from American Jews with close ties to Israel who loves the film and can somehow only see it as ‘pointing fingers at Arab leaders for the refugee’s problems. This is, of course partly true, but not the whole truth …
Dr. Sari Hanafi: this is why settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a must in order to address the issue of the permanent status of the Palestinian refugees, particularly in Lebanon.
Mahdi Fleifel: On one side the Zionist movement expelled my grandfather and many like him from his land and has since denied him his right to return. And on the other hand you have the Lebanese government saying *you guys must hold on to your right to return, so we will not give you any rights here*… And Palestinian refugees till this day are stuck in this catch 22.
Comment From Michael: Has Ain El Helweh changed at all, for better or worse, since the release of your film?
Mahdi Fleifel: Last I was there I felt that it was getting worse…
Dr. Sari Hanafi: i agree with Mahdi. There is a new factor: the arrival of the Syrian refugees. Ain El Helweh host around 5000 Palestinian from Syria ..
Mahdi Fleifel: I know Dr. Hanafi stated earlier that the figure is around 65.000 or so but from what I last read – given the situation in Syria, and the Palestinian refugees now fleeing into Lebanon and into the camps, I read that it was more than that
Mahdi Fleifel: and you could feel the lack of space even more this time
Mahdi Fleifel: usually people complain about lack of electricity (only on for about 6 hours a day) and water shortage…. but this time it was really space that was becoming a serious problem . In the market where people put their fruit stands, I heard several arguments between merchants about 10cm and 20cm !!!
Dr. Sari Hanafi: figure could be much higher. i was expected Western countries to accept some asylum seekers from Syria but the what they accepted in almost nothing (except Sweden)
Comment From Juliette: Will the movie be shown in Lebanon?
Dr. Sari Hanafi: Alas !! it is banned … Lebanon looks like a democratic country but it is what i call illiberal democracy …
Patrick Campbell: It has been shown a few times at festivals…
Patrick Campbell: so we got to show it before the Lebanese government banned it
Patrick Campbell: we’re still looking at options though so hopefully there’ll be more screenings
Comment From Katherine Hanna: It’s pretty amazing to have seen your film on PBS. (Kudos) It’s a narrative that’s almost never seen on American television and would really help people understand the conflict. Can you speak about the response your film has gotten in America?
Dr. Sari Hanafi: Mahdi and Patrick, i strongly encourage you to go public and to denounce the Leb General security who ban it ..
Mahdi Fleifel: We are working on it
Mahdi Fleifel: To answer your questions Kathrine…
Mahdi Fleifel: The film has shown at around 130-something festivals, 5 or so of these US festivals…
Mahdi Fleifel: The film – once it’s gotten the chance – has done very well with audiences in the states
Mahdi Fleifel: And we are so happy to have had the chance to show on PBS, it’s as good as it gets
Comment From Katherine Hanna: So what are you working on next?
Mahdi Fleifel: But unfortunately, it seems that anything Palestinian is not so in in the states…
Mahdi Fleifel: and people usually get tired of this topic
Patrick Campbell: Mahdi and I are working on a follow-up to A World Not Ours…
Mahdi Fleifel: given that you’d already had a film like 5 Broken Cameras come out the year before, and celebrated by many filmmakers like Michael Moore and pushed all the way to the Oscars…. I feel that people in the states are like – “well, now we can have a break. We can wait another 5 years or so for another Palestinian story”….
Dr. Sari Hanafi: this is a great news .. this topic need to visualize it in order to let people understand what is the Palestinian refugee problem
Patrick Campbell: it’s basically a semi-fictional account of Abu Eyad’s time in Athens…
Patrick Campbell: and we also have a short film called Xenos which is pretty much an epilogue to A World Not Ours that we’re touring around festivals at the moment so that’s still keeping us busy.
Mahdi Fleifel: It’s been a hard sell in many ways, it’s only when people actually get to see the film that they know this is Not just another Palestinian film
Mahdi Fleifel: When people ask what it’s about and I start with something like: “it’s about my family, about this Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon… ” I can see how they just want to run away
Comment From Katherine Hanna: But I think that’s the strength of your film.
Dr. Sari Hanafi: Now while the region is full of waves of refugees, Pal, Syrian and Iraqi .. it is time to address this human tragedy in a serious way….
Mahdi Fleifel: But then I’ll say something like, “hey, do you like Radio Days by woody Allen or The Wonder Years?” and then the conversation changes
Dr. Sari Hanafi: Hopefully it would be awareness about the connection between colonialism, authoritarianism and human refugee suffering …
Mahdi Fleifel: But all in all, we are very pleased with how well the film has done and the fact that we receive fan letters from Brazil and Japan saying how much they love my Grandpa – that’s really beyond anything we could have imagined… My Grandpa is almost like Paul Newman now!
Mahdi Fleifel: And to think of Palestinians in a new way where they’re just humans, and not part of the usual (boring) discourse of either victims or terrorists is really something we are proud of …. I hope we can keep changing this image with our next films
Dr. Sari Hanafi: yes this is very important
POV: Thanks so much for your time today, Mahdi, Patrick and Dr. Hanafi.
POV: We are ending the online chat now.
POV: And thanks to everyone who wrote in! Great questions today.
Mahdi Fleifel: Thank you all for joining us!
POV: Continue the conversation on social media with the hashtag #AWorldNotOurs
Patrick Campbell: Bye for now
POV: A World Not Ours is now available for full streaming online until September 17, 2014 on the POV website. http://www.pbs.org/pov/aworldnotours/video/a-world-not-ours/
POV: Visit the A World Not Ours companion site to learn more about the film!