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The filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel has described his first full-length documentary film A World Not Ours (2012), which won over thirty international prizes, as “more than a family portrait; rather it portrays the attempt to hold on to the forgotten and mark what shouldn’t be erased from collective memory.” All of Mahdi Fleifel’s films explore how we construct identity: How have we become what we are? He investigates these questions with the direct cinema technique, along with the everyday life and reality of refugees. He often follows his protagonists for many years, showing how all their hopes and dreams gradually turn into nightmares, into a cycle marked by drug abuse and prostitution. Despite showing the misery of exile, Mahdi Fleifel manages to add a dose of humor or satire to many of his portrayals. The unique, unvarnished quality of his camera’s eye can likely be attributed to his own upbringing in the refugee camp Ain el-Helweh in Lebanon, where he met many of his protagonists. His family has already lived in the camp for three generations.
Born in Dubai in 1979, grown up in the refugee camp Ain el-Helweh in Lebanon, and later having moved to a suburb of Elsinore in Denmark, Mahdi Fleifel completed his studies at the National Film and Television School in London in 2009. His short film Arafat and I (2008) was screened at festivals around the world and received numerous prizes. A World Not Ours (2012) was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 in the “Panorama” section, where it won the peace prize; it was awarded first place at the festivals in Yamagata, Edinburgh and DOC:NYC respectively.
His most recent project, titled A Man Returned (2016), was nominated for a European Film Award and received the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016. In the film, Mahdi Fleifel follows his childhood friend, the twenty-six-year-old Reda, when he returns to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Reda had spent the previous three years homeless in Athens. Unable to gain asylum in Europe, he is now addicted to heroin. Yet he wants to make changes, and get married. On the phone with his future wife, he asks her, “Are you in a hurry? I’m thinking about our new life together. It might be hard, since it will be something new for both of us,” he says. He then concludes: “We will have to do the impossible. With our love, our faith and our understanding for each other.” But will his dream come true?
In the short documentary Xenos (2013), Mahdi Fleifel follows another childhood friend, Abu Eyad, who leaves the camp Ain el-Helweh, travelling via Syria to Greece. The year is 2010. Once he finally reaches Athens, the country is hit by economic and political collapse. The director intersperses his phone calls with Abu Eyad with shots of the Greek capital, the city where his daily struggle for survival unfolds; the place that had once seemed so full of promise land has now become a hell.
September 1993: Two statesmen shake hands, joined by a third – Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton pose in the White House Garden. An historic moment. Which Mahdi Fleifel repeats twenty times in 20 Handshakes for Peace (2014), as he titled his short documentary. The viewer hears the words from the final interview given by the Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said, who is outraged by the handshake during the “Oslo Peace Process.” This piece featured in the anthology Suspended Time where nine Palestinian filmmakers were commissioned to produce a work commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accord. Mahdi Fleifel's segment screened at the Berlinale Forum Expanded in 2015.

Mahdi Fleifel recently premiered his first fiction film in almost ten years, A Drowning Man, which was nominated for the short film Palme d'Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Text: Maike Wetzel
Translation into English: Amy Pradell


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Films (selection): 2017 A Drowning Man (short film, 15’) 2016 A Man Returned (short film, 30‘) 2014 20 Handshakes for Peace (short film, 5‘) 2013 Xenos (short film, 13’) 2012 A World Not Ours (documentary, 93’)
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