Filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel returns to highlight the plight of refugees in A Man Returned
A Man Returned is the latest evidence in support of the notion that filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel has become a chronicler of the refugee experience.
In 2010, at the time of the football World Cup in South Africa, he returned to the Ain Al Hilweh refugee camp for Palestinians in Lebanon, where he grew up, to film the residents, particularly his family and friends.
That result was the documentary feature film A World Not Ours, which won the Black Pearl Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012.
He followed this up in 2014 with Xenos, a short film that looked at how one of the subjects of his debut film, Abu Eyad, had fared when he left Lebanon for Greece. In Berlin last week, Fleifel unveiled his latest film, A Man Returned, a 30-minute documentary about another refugee who appeared in his first film, Reda, who also travelled to Greece but was deported back to Lebanon and forced to return to Ain Al Hilweh.
“This film happened by accident,” says Fleifel. “I was in Beirut, researching and writing my new feature film – which we hope to start shooting next spring – and while I was there, I went to visit my granddad.
“It was the summer of 2014 and I thought, ‘Hey, I will go visit my granddad, I will go watch the World Cup’, and guess what, this time I won’t bring a camera. I’ve been there and done that, and I didn’t really want to. I made a conscious decision not to film.”
Fleifel was surprised when the camp’s inhabitants asked him why he wasn’t filming this time.
His grandfather’s neighbour, Reda, who appeared in A World Not Ours, took this one step further when he confronted the director and said: “How come you’re not filming?Do you want to come and make a film about me? Is Abu Eyad better than me? What’s that about?”
The director told him: “No, look dude, I don’t know if it’s a good idea. Plus, you are doing this ‘stuff’.” The “stuff” is heroin. The widespread use of the drug in the camp came as a surprise to Fleifel.
“When I was making A World Not Ours in 2010, people were smoking hash – we are in Lebanon, that’s what people do,” says the 36-year-old director .
“Four years later we are talking heroin, and it was all over the place. A lot of guys had picked it up in Athens, bought it back and, somehow, with what is happening, it’s coming in through Syria, through Iran, whatever – but heroin has made it into the camps.”
Fleifel shot the film over three weekends in July 2014. The main focus was supposed to be Reda’s wedding, but his drug-dealing is what eventually takes priority.
“What do you do with this guy?” says Fleifel. “He’s a heroin addict, he’s a junkie – but we love him. We want to try to protect him. What do we do? That dilemma is really important to me.
“Also, I was living in Beirut at the time, going to the camps, seeing what I was seeing, then driving up 20 minutes later and sitting in a cafe in Beirut acting like nothing is going on.
“I thought, hang on, this is no worse than talking about Israelis living in Tel Aviv and not caring about what is going on in Gaza. It’s the same deal.” So Fleifel did what he does best, he assembled a movie from the footage.
He laments the fact that the opportunity to move to Denmark, which his family was given and enabled him to become a Danish citizen, is increasingly difficult to come by.
“I came to Europe as a 9-year-old in the 1980s,” he says. “It was a different world back then. As a result, I’m a privileged refugee today, in that I can call myself European. Today, we are building walls and fences, and putting out border army controls, you know what I mean. It’s a different world.”
In Reda, Fleifel shows the audiences an example of how difficult it truly is for refugees to escape to Europe.
Updated: February 20, 2016 04:00 AM