A World Not Ours (A'Lamun Laysa Lana): Abu Dhabi Review

Documentary dispatches from a refugee-camp build into an engagingly accessible chronicle of a friendship, a family and a place.

London-based writer/director/cinematographer Mahdi Fliefel's prize-winning debut documents a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon

The plight of Palestinian refugees has been a recurring topic for both fictional and documentary cinema for decades, so it's impressive that writer-director-cinematographer Mahdi Fleifel has found such a fresh, engaging and accessible approach to this well-trodden turf for his debut A World Not Ours (A'Lamun Laysa Lana).

A wry autobiographical essay focusing on the Ain-el-helweh camp in Lebanon, where many of the Dubai-born, Danish-raised, now London-based Fleifel's relatives and friends still reside, this briskly edited example of first-person reportage premiered in Toronto before taking the Best Documentary prize at Abu Dhabi, where it also won similar recognition from the FIPRESCI jury. The UK-Lebanese-Danish co-production is a cinch for human rights events and sidebars, but has sufficiently wide appeal to warrant selection by festivals and networks not exclusively devoted to documentary fare. 

Fleifel's life-story makes him perhaps uniquely well-positioned to depict the rough and smooth of life in Ain-el-helweh, a settlement less than a mile square that's home to over 70,000 people and has existed for more than sixty years. Regarded by enemies of the Palestinian cause as a hotbed of dangerous Jihadism, Ain-el-helweh has steadily evolved from a makeshift camp into a self-contained small city of rickety and unreliable infrastructure. 

Though he's never actually lived in Ain-el-helweh himself, Fleifel has been a very regular visitor over the years and throughout his childhood spent his summer holidays in the area's crowded streets. His best friend Abu Eyad has, by contrast, seldom left the place, and burns with resentment at the Palestinians' second-class status within Lebanon ("no rights"). Heavily involved in the militant organization Fatah, Abu Eyad is Fleifel's access-point to parts of the camp that few outsiders could ever hope to visit, and emerges as one of the most vivid and fascinating personalities on view, along with Fleifel's crusty octogenarian grandfather and his live-wire uncle.

By interpolating home-movie footage shot by Fleifel and his own father over the years, the director, with crucial assistance from editor Michael Aaglund, builds a multi-layered portrait of the Palestinian refugee experience as seen through the prism of one family. While he realizes he's always going to be somewhere between an outsider and an insider at Ain-el-helweh, as his European connections and passport allow him to come and go at will, Fleifel nevertheless crafts a persuasively heartfelt, atmospherically immersive experience that does justice to the joys and hazards of this extreme environment.

Jon Opstad's perky original score fluently combines with extracts of jazzy instrumentals from a bygone era, helping to keep the overall tone rather more jaunty and droll than we might expect given the essentially serious, even tragic subject-matter. Fleifel's own extensive, often self-deprecating English-language narration is also a crucial element in our connection with the people and places he depicts. Humor is consistently shown as a key element in the maintenance of community spirit at Ain-el-Helweh, tempering the anger that's evident when these displaced people speak of 'returning' to a homeland which the majority of them have never actually seen.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Documentary Competition), October 17, 2012.

Production company: Nakba FilmWorks
Director / Screenwriter / Director of photography: Mahdi Fleifel
Producers: Patrick Campbell, Mahdi Fleifel
Music: Jon Opstad
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Sales agent: Nakba, London

No MPAA rating, 93 minutes