"I stopped reading the news in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq. I made that decision because the news just made my stomach hurt," Mahdi Fleifel says.
The Danish-Palestinian director has never gone for the political angle, even if his films strike at the heart of a theme that couldn't be more current: the life of refugees on the border of Europe.
"A Drowning Man" is no exception. Fleifel's 15-minute film takes us to Athens, where we follow a lost young man struggling to survive in a dangerous world.
Fleifel, who went to film school in England, won a Silver Bear in Berlin in 2016 for his documentary short "A Man Returned." The film is set in the same Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where the director spent his earliest childhood before coming to Denmark. Ain el-Helweh also makes up the backdrop of "Xenos" (2014) and the director's acclaimed debut film "A World Not Ours" (2012), which depicts life in the camp through a mix of old family films and new footage from Fleifel's many visits to his grandfather, uncle and a friend from his youth.
"I shot 'A World Not Ours' in 2010 just before the start of the Syrian uprising. The refugee situation has exploded since then, of course. But I don't make films about refugees just because it's an issue everyone's talking about. I do it because I'm a refugee myself – even though I'm so privileged I can travel freely around the world. But my grandfather is still a refugee, and has been for nearly 70 years. So that's a part of me. That way I'm trying to tell my own story,” Fleifel says.
"What interests me is the humanity. The human stories. The fact that refugees live under conditions which are the result of political circumstances, that's something people have to work out for themselves. That's not where I'm coming from."
"A Man Returned" (2016) by Mahdi Fleifel.
Four-Year Partnership Bears Fruit
"A Drowning Man," produced by Patrick Campbell and Signe Byrge Sørensen, is Fleifel's first fiction film since graduating from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield in 2009, where he trained as a fiction-film director.
Fleifel and Campbell got to know the film's Danish producer, Byrge Sørensen, because they were always bumping into each other at countless festivals in 2012-13, where both "A World Not Ours" and "The Act of Killing," produced by Byrge Sørensen at Final Cut for Real, were screening.
In 2013, they started working together on a feature film titled "Men in the Sun." As part of developing it, they made "A Drowning Man," which tells the same basic story about young Palestinian refugees caught in limbo in Athens as they try to get to the promised land of Europe. The short is based on the same locations and characters planned for the feature, and the team also used the production of it to test Fleifel's idea about casting actual refugees.
"For me, Final Cut for Real is the best place in Denmark to make films," Fleifel says.
"I find that we share an understanding of how to work with films. Signe spent years making Joshua Oppenheimer's documentaries. That shows patience, engagement and a singular work ethic. Wanting to make something that's timeless. Of course the film can be entertaining, and of course it's great if it makes some money, but that's not what drives us.
"I also find that she and her company think creatively during production. They adapt to the process that's playing out. My method, for example, is that I work with non-professional actors, shoot in sequence and take my time revising the material along the way.
"It's terrific to see that our work, after four years, is finally bearing fruit."
"A World Not Ours" (2012) by Mahdi Fleifel.
Adding Poetry to Reality
The method of casting actual refugees for the short, and later the feature, goes back to Fleifel's experiences making his documentaries.
"It was liberating to discover documentaries after film school. There, I found it all pretty rigid – you write a script, then you do casting, then you rehearse and then you film. In a documentary you can preserve the natural element. I didn't have to make it look like real life, because these were just ordinary people," he says.
"I want to bring that naturalness to fiction. Plus, with fiction films, you get to decide how to film something – how tight you want to pull in, how to focus on sound design or create intimacy with specific lenses. A kind of poetic reality you get to add to as a director. I want things to feel vibrant and alive – like something just happens to be going on right here, right now."
And it's no harm if the audience gets a gut punch when Fleifel's film takes us close to people who have it so much worse than us.
"I want the audience to feel empathy for these people. People with dreams and hopes. Who breathe the same air you and I do. That they don't have papers and come from other cultures is secondary," Fleifel says.
"No matter how much hopelessness is in a story, there should always be a little hope. Otherwise, I don't think it's believable. Where there's life, there's hope. It's a choice you make, how you want to see the world and humanity" •
The interview was originally published in May for the Cannes Festival, where "A Drowning Man" screened in the short film competition.
About the film
"A Drowning Man" is directed by Mahdi Fleifel and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen for Final Cut for Real and Patrick Campbell and Mahdi Fleifel of English production company Nakba FilmWorks. Michael Aaglund edited, and Vasco Viana was behind the camera. The film has received development funding from the Danish Film Institute by Cecilia Lidin.
Mahdi Fleifel's feature film project "Men in the Sun" is in development.
"A Drowning Man" is premiered at the Cannes Festival in the Short Films Competition and is making its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (7-17 September).