Mahdi Fleifel has spent the days leading up to the Dubai International Film Festival premiere of his latest short, A Drowning Man, teaching students at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi.
"Scandar Copti and Kamal Aljafari, the Palestinian filmmakers, they kind of hijacked me because they knew I was coming to the Dubai for the festival," Fleifel says. "They said why not come to the UAE a couple of days before and talk to our students. We showed three of my short films and I also showed an offline cut of a new one that I have in the works. The facilities that they have here are incredible. I always like to come back to the Emirates for a reason – I was born here."
It was in the UAE, at 2012's Abu Dhabi Film Festival, that he presented the premiere of A World Not Ours, which won the Black Pearl Award in the Documentary Competition. It was the first of many awards for the biographical film, in which he combined home-movie footage shot while growing up in Dubai and Denmark, with footage from the Ain Al-Hilweh, the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, where his extended family have lived for decades.
A Drowning Man had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and while a male central refugee protagonist trying to make sense of his existence that is a thread throughout his work is used once again, the film is something of a departure for Fleifel, because it is his first work of fiction. "I did this film, I wouldn't say against my will, but I have to do it as a sample of a fiction to get funding for a feature film that I have been writing, which is based on similar themes," he explains.
Fateh is the drowning man of the title, pacing Athens' streets, where he is trying to make sense of his existence as he is forced to make compromises to obtain spare change and cigarettes. It follows in the footsteps of Fleifel's two documentary short films, Xenos (2014) and A Man Returned (2016), which featured refugees from the Ain Al-Hilweh camp, in Athens.
"I think it's essential to ask ourselves what is it like to spend a day in the life of a guy who has no documents, no language and he's like in a jungle," Fleifel says. "I am drawn to these guys, even though all we have in the news is numbers. We are told that this many people have crossed the border and so many have died at sea, but who are these people? That's the story I want to know."
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The actors in A Drowning Man are non-professionals found in refugee camps in and around Athens. "Greek producer Maria Drandaki facilitated the entire thing," he explains. "She hooked me up with the best street caster in Greece. Her name is Kleopatra Ampatzoglou, and she is a force of nature – the type of person who will burst into bars and say: 'I'm looking for this and that person, who's coming?'"
The decision came down to two people. "The casting director and some others were keen on this other guy, and if I'd been doing a more Bressonian film with not much dialogue, I would have chosen him, because he relayed so much with his facial expression, but I wasn't convinced that he could pull off the scene where he is bullied by the guy and has to sell his shoes," Fleifel says. "I saw the character as a lost puppy and I wanted someone with that puppy look [who could] be convincing to the audience as someone that could be talked into stealing and prostitution. He is a simpleton, and I insisted on using Atef Alshafei – he was the best thing in the film."
Making a fiction-based film was tougher than Fleifel expected. "You are more forgiving of yourself in documentaries because everything you have when you make a documentary is a gift," he says. "You don't write it, or anticipate it – it just happens. With fiction, you are always looking at the material with a more critical eye. You tell yourself the shirt on that guy isn't right or we could have pushed more in that scene before calling cut."
He adds that the title has more resonance given current world events. "We are all drowning men. I'm just trying to keep my head above water."
A Drowning Man screens as part of the Muhr Short (1) package, on December 11 at 9.30pm at Vox 6, Mall of the Emirates, and December 12 at 2.45pmat Vox 3, Mall of the Emirates