“Stop filming and step on him!” director Mahdi Fleifel’s grandfather shouts at the beginning of A Land Not Ours. “Are you afraid of a cockroach?” Vulnerable and compassionate, Fleifel hesitates to squash the insect, yet comes across as fearless.
The Palestinian-Danish child of refugees from the Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Fleifel grew up in relative freedom and security, but as a child he envied the relatives who lived in the camp, which to him felt like home. As an adult, Fleifel recognizes that his grandfather’s anger comes from spending 64 years as a refugee, insisting on the Palestinians’ right of return to a home that, politically speaking, barely exists. Yet instead of dwelling on these painful facts, Fleifel investigates his personal connection to Ein el-Helweh, and the way the camp limits the lives of its residents.
During the World Cup, the whole place comes alive, roofs adorned with Italian, Brazilian, and German flags, grown men hugging and shouting in the streets. But in quieter times, men like Fleifel’s friend Abu Iyad are lost.
Under Lebanese law, Palestinians often cannot work, and their lives hold little possibility. “I bet the guys who blew themselves up felt the same way I did,” Iyad says. “No future, no education, no work, no nothing.” But Fleifel renders the present clearly.
Patching together home movies from his childhood, news footage placing the story of Ein el-Helweh in historical and political context, and occasionally grainy handheld camerawork that conveys both mess and intimacy, Fleifel gathers the messy detritus of everyday living, laughs at it, then shows the viewer what it means.