Filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel discusses the making of his film, A World Not Ours.
Mahdi Fleifel: A World Not Ours is a film about my family. My parents are Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. I grew up in Denmark, but every summer we would go back to this place and visit our family and relatives, my grandparents, and we would go to this refugee camp where my parents were born. To me, as a kid growing up, it was the most amazing, adventurous place. I didn’t really understand the politics of the place or what was actually going on, what it meant that it was a refugee camp. It was a place where I could run around, bare feet, and chase cats in the streets and climb fig trees, so it was a magical place. And later as I grew older, I realized that it was a refugee camp, and started filming as well. And so over the years we’d collected a huge amount of footage. I put it together and it became the film that is now A World Not Ours.
I’ve always wanted to tell a story about this place. In fact, that’s what I say in the beginning of the film. To me, growing up in Denmark, I always struggled explaining to my classmates and friends about this refugee camp in Lebanon. I would go and spend my summer holidays there and come back and they just couldn’t get what it meant. What’s it like there in a refugee camp? It must be horrible place. No, it was great, I was watching the World Cup and hanging out with my cousins. So it’s always been very difficult for me to communicate that feeling about Ain el-Helweh and so I think it gave me a certain urge to share it with people and to make a film about it.
I would say A World Not Ours is about exile, family, friendship, childhood memories. And it’s also a very personal film, but I would like to think that the personal has somehow become universal in a way. We all have a grandfather and a childhood friend and maybe a crazy uncle. So I think those are pretty universal things and to me it was important to connect to the human side of the story. I didn’t want it to be another Palestinian documentary, another story about victims versus victims and who’s the bigger victim in this conflict. I didn’t really want it to be about that. I’m a Palestinian but I grew up in Europe and I was born in Dubai and my parents are refugees from Lebanon. I’ve never really experienced occupation in that sense. In fact, I’ve never really seen an Israeli soldier up front and so I don’t have that experience. But I do have the experience of exile. And it was important for me to share that as well, but to really focus on the human side. I wanted people to see my people or my family as human beings. We’re all breathing the same air in the end.
What I would like audiences to get out of the film. Hopefully a new or a different perspective about what it means to be a Palestinian or exile in general. I don’t know. I think our image has been quite stereotyped in the media. We’re always portrayed as angry Arabs or victims or whatever, and I think again, for me, it was just really important to say well hey, no, we’re actually just human beings. And I think rarely do you actually hear about the Palestinian refugees. They don’t really feature in this debate. In fact, a lot of people were dispossessed in ’48 when the state of Israel was established and these people to this day, 66 years later, are still living in refugee camps. And that is something that we can shine some light on it.
I’m an exile, and it really hit home when I made this film and finished the film. I realized that I’m never going to be able to have the feeling of a non-exile. I’m Palestinian, I grew up in Denmark, I was born in Dubai, I live in London. I think it just gives me a healthy perspective on life. It’s funny, when I’m say with Danes, I find myself feeling like an Arab or I’m Palestinian. And when I’m with Arabs, I’m like no, I’m Danish or I’m European. So there’s always this need to be on the outside or just to preserve that wider perspective on things. I think the film really helped me accept that and learn to cherish it.
The thing about having finished the film, I realized that there was such a sense of relief. I realized that I’d been carrying this thing for so many years. In fact, it was sort of a part of me that I’d never really been able to communicate to anyone. In fact, when I showed the film to my close friends in Denmark, they were all surprised. They were like, we thought we knew you very well, but here’s this completely other world, other side of you that we’d never known about. And that was very satisfying to me. Also throughout the making of the film there was a sense of responsibility, in that if I didn’t tell the story, who is going to tell it? And if I didn’t talk about Ain el-Helweh, this small, one square kilometer refugee camp in South Lebanon — Lebanon is half the size of Wales — who is going to know about this place? So to me, to preserve it and to make a record about it was very important and it was really a relief finishing it. It was satisfying. It was great.