Film Review: 'A World Not Ours'

"The old will die and the young will forget. We shall reduce the Arab population to a community of woodcutters and waiters". The lethal words of statesman David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, who expunged generations of Palestinians after the Second World War, with no right of return. They say violence breeds violence, and it's no surprise that today we witness an entire culture of disillusionment, estrangement and fury among all of the Palestinian territories. One in particular, a refugee camp named Ain el-Helweh ('Sweet Spring') in Lebanon, is the setting of Mahdi Fleifel's A World Not Ours (2012).

Filmmaker Fleifel's relationship with Ain el-Helweh is more indirect, if not rooted in his genealogy. His parents and grandparents lived in the refugee camp before his father moved to Dubai and subsequently far north to Denmark, granting Fleifel the ability to travel in and out of the region. His friend Abu Iyad, grandfather Abu Osama and uncle Said have not been so fortunate and have remained there, either because of a desire to belong or a crippling immobility caused by heartache, anger and the wish to someday return home. Fleifel has collected footage from his father, also an avid filmmaker, and combined it with his own visits to the camp to create an expansive, eye-opening twenty-year picture of life in Lebanon's Ain el-Helweh.

The result is a staggering depiction of resilience amidst a raging political and religious climate. Over the decades, land-grabs, military interventions and the spread of po-faced democracy have blurred what was once a straightforward request from Palestinians to rediscover their homeland. Conversations between Abu Iyad and Fleifel are of people without a country, without an identity, and the inexorableness of life in the camp is overwhelming. "Why would anyone choose to live here?" asks Abu Iyad; laughing as if answerless, he says "Where else would I go?" Remnants of an interfering Israel can also be seen around the camp, from the crumbling walls after rocket attacks to the embittered tirades of its citizens.

A World Not Ours doesn't perhaps feel as charged as recent documentaries on the Middle East. It's more internal, revealing that the last fifty years have been like a vice, slowly crushing the spirit of all Palestinians. This is told most neatly through Said's aviary; he collects pigeons and chicks, nurturing and defending them. The metaphor of a caged bird resonates more clearly than any transparent political debate on the US Senate floor or in the lecture halls of universities. Fleifel puts faces to that state of being and uses his film to give the victims of political chaos a sense of self. In this sense, A World Not Ours is exactly what a documentary should be: a tool for both education and, with any luck, salvation.

This review was first published on 28 June 2013 as part of our Edinburgh International Film Festival coverage.

Andrew Latimer


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