Constantly in flux: what inspires Danish-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel to make films
The Dubai-born filmmaker tells Kaleem Aftab about how he is moved to tell the ‘David v Goliath’ story of his homeland, Palestine
This Saturday, five of Mahdi Fleifel’s short films will screen at the Nordic Youth Film Festival (NUFF) 2019, an annual event held in Tromso, the Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle. The festival celebrates short films made by young directors aged 15-26. The roster included Fleifel’s, I Signed the Petition, in which the Danish-Palestinian filmmaker voices his concerns over signing a petition asking British band Radiohead to reconsider playing in Israel.
“If you put all of my short films together, it feels like one long movie. It’s all part of a bigger world, it’s one body of work,” he says.
Fleifel, who was born in Dubai, attended NUFF as one of eight mentors chosen to guide 32 aspiring talents through the process of making a short film. Each mentor was to meet a small group who would create a short to show their peers at the end of the festival in Tromso. During the height of the summer, the sun never sets in the Norwegian town, but rain doesn’t seem to stop falling, either, and the temperature barely creeps into double digits.
Fleifel, 39, is one of the Arab world’s most talented filmmakers. He burst on to the international scene after he won the Black Pearl Award for Best Documentary at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012 for his feature A World Not Ours. The film went on to win the Peace Film Award at the Berlin Film Festival a year later, and also took the Viewfinders Grand Jury prize at the Doc NYC festival that year.
In the biographical documentary, Fleifel combined home-movie footage taken while he was growing up in Dubai and Denmark with footage from Ain El-Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where his extended family has lived for decades. The fascinating tale of displacement and memory remains his only feature film.
In recent years he has made a series of equally successful shorts. The five films screened at NUFF were Xenos (2014), 20 Handshakes for Peace (2015), Man Returned (2016), A Drowning Man (2017), and I Signed The Petition (2018).
Xenos almost feels like an epilogue to A World Not Ours, as it follows two young refugees who venture from Ain El-Helweh to Greece. In 20 Handshakes for Peace, Fleifel laments the moment in 2000 when the Palestinian leader at the time Yasser Arafat reached out to shake the hand of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin after talks at Camp David. A Man Returned, which won the Silver Bear Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016, has the main character, Reda returning to Ain El-Helweh as a drug addict after spending three years as a refugee in Greece. Meanwhile A Drowning Man, the only fictional film of the series, focuses on the existential crisis affecting an undocumented migrant in Greece.
In I Signed The Petition, Fleifel goes through an existential crisis of his own. The film won Best Short Documentary at last year’s Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, arguably the world’s most prestigious for the genre. The film is a hilarious take on a real-life incident. Fleifel was sent an email asking him to sign a petition calling on Radiohead to join a cultural boycott of Israel and cancel a gig there in July 2017. Fleifel signed, but the band went through with the show, despite further calls from campaigners for the band to reconsider, including from two-time Palme d’Or-winning director Ken Loach.
In the film, Fleifel wakes up in an apartment in Berlin feeling worried. It’s the morning after he has signed the petition and he makes a call to a friend, wondering if he made the right decision. He admits the work was inspired by his uncertainty over signing the petition. “I didn’t want to publicly put my name on to some kind of political dispute because I’m not sure if I wanted to be involved in it.”
At the time, Fleifel also wondered what the point in creating the petition was. “Are you really going to change anything by signing? It’s David v Goliath,” Fleifel says.
Through the course of a telephone conversation in the film, the fear, alienation and powerlessness felt by the director is brilliantly discussed and analysed. They eventually agree that, as a Palestinian in exile, he is part of the conversation, whether he signs the petition or not.
The conversation about whether artists should perform in Israel was back in the news earlier this year, after British band The Tuts refused to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest because it was being held in Israel. Madonna performed at the event, despite campaigners urging her not to. Did Fleifel sign a petition calling on the American singer not to appear? “No one sent me a petition to sign,” he says.
The filmmaker, who once again lives in Denmark, is a huge fan of short film and says the process of making them suits his personality. He has toiled over a narrative feature film for the past couple of years and short films have allowed him to continue flexing his creative muscles, as well as keeping him on the film festival circuit.
“Once you get into the process of making a feature film, which involves applying for development money and raising finance, it can often kill the desire to tell that story,” he says. “Things that have been satisfying to me are films that have just come to me. I didn’t plan to make A World Not Ours, A Man Returned or I Signed The Petition. It’s like I just tuned in and the frequency picked up a signal from somewhere and then I just followed my intuition.”
The feature film he has been trying to write has had such a long gestation period, he says it is unlikely the film will get made. But fans of his work need not worry, as he reveals he came up with another idea for a feature film, which he describes as the Palestinian Hamlet. “It’s a tragedy about someone who doesn’t really fit in anywhere, proving that something is really rotten in the state of Denmark.”
That sounds like a Fleifel film, already. He excels when he puts either himself or his interests into his work. He has a charm that lights up the screen and the way he deals with the refugee crises feels urgent and necessary. Fleifel also enjoys making films he doesn’t believe another director could make, he says.
He is also constantly on the move, seemingly searching for a safe place, somewhere that feels like home. “It’s like I live in this world, but I’m not from it,” he says. “What I’m interested in is movement, people who are constantly in flux, because I’ve moved around a lot.”
He says he enjoys mentoring filmmakers because passing on his knowledge to the next generation makes him aware of how far he has come as a director. He never describes himself as a teacher because he doesn’t have a teaching certificate, and works from intuition. “I don’t know what they expect of me, but I can only give them me,” he says.
But as he has proved time and again, the world according to Fleifel is what audiences find so riveting.
Updated: June 28, 2019 09:34 AM