Palestinian actors Aram Sabbah and Mahmood Bakri on filming Cannes hit To a Land Unknown

Actors embedded themselves in Athens neighbourhoods featured in Mahdi Fleifel's latest work

Aram Sabbah, left, and Mahmood Bakri play cousins Reda and Chatila in To a Land Unknown. Photo: Eurozoom
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Palestinian-Danish director Mahdi Fleifel’s To a Land Unknown is one of the cruellest, timeliest films screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The gritty drama, which had its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight strand of the French event, follows two Palestinian cousins, Reda (Aram Sabbah) and Chatila (Mahmood Bakri). After fleeing a camp in Lebanon, the two men are stranded in Athens, living in an underground limbo. Desperately seeking a way to reach Germany, they set up a plan to smuggle a child to Italy with the help of a Greek woman (Angeliki Papoulia).

A modern tragedy with the pacing and the tension of an action thriller, To a Land Unknown is an uncompromising look at the living conditions of migrants. The film is a co-production between France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

After its world premiere, The National sat down with Sabbah and Bakri at the Plage de la Quinzaine in Cannes.

Sabbah, a Palestinian skateboarder turned actor, admits that making the film was a particularly moving experience: "You hear about those exile stories, [about] people in Athens and others all over the world. You hear them, but you never see them. You never feel them," he says.

"Mahdi made sure we stayed in Kypseli, the Athens neighbourhood where he shot his documentaries. There, I learnt that there are a lot of people willing to do anything to keep going, while they’re stuck in that ‘limbo’ state.”

Sabbah didn’t go through an audition for his role. “There was supposed to be an actor playing my character, but he didn’t manage to get a visa [to Greece]. I think he was from Jordan. Mahdi was about to shoot the film, then our sound recordist Abu Alul Montaser mentioned my name. I had met Mahdi six or seven years before in Palestine. But he actually rang me three days before starting shooting,” he reveals.

Bakri says Fleifel had been searching for two years for the right actor to play Chatila. “The first time we spoke I sported long hair, and he didn’t like my audition,” Bakri says. Two years later, a Palestinian casting director invited him for another audition. On that occasion, he showed up looking much more similar to the character (Chatila has very short hair). Fleifel was convinced he had found the man for the role.

Portraying Reda and Chatila wasn't an easy task. “The first week of filming I was really stressed out, and I wanted to make sure I was playing my character well,” Sabbah explains. "If you watch the film, you might see that sometimes I wasn’t fully ‘in'.

"I managed to rewatch all Mahdi’s films beforehand. From his documentaries, I could see how people behaved and things were done. Mahdi also sent me some unseen clips depicting drug addicts in Athens, to learn from them. And you want to be sensitive, you don’t want to cross any lines and hurt people further.”

Before filming, Bakri also watched Mahdi’s films again and considers himself to be a "big fan" of his work. Three weeks before production began, the actor stayed in the same district where the two characters live, immersing himself in the tense atmosphere and speaking to people there. “This nurtured my role, intentionally and unintentionally,” he adds.

Because he joined the project three days before filming started, Sabbah focused on learning his lines and reading the script, unpacking it scene by scene with the director.

Bakri praises Fleifel’s directorial approach. “I could say he gave us the freedom to break the script, to break the lines, to get out of the idea of the script as a sacred book, which was something completely new to me," he says.

“For me the script is sacred. I read it and I tend to stick to it. But this approach helped me to let go of things, and I think that’s the most valuable thing I’ve learnt on this set.”

Looking back at the production process, Sabbah discusses the most difficult scene he worked on. In it, Reda is in a park and sells his body to a man for money. “Technically speaking, the whole film was hard, as we shot it on 16mm, so you don’t have so many takes [to get scenes right].”

Bakri talks about a scene in which he and Sabbah travel through Athens on a bus, with the noise of the engine challenging the actors. “I remember not hearing my voice, which is a very hard thing to deal with," he says. "And, of course, that’s been a very hard scene, emotionally speaking."

Updated: May 27, 2024, 1:11 PM