Golden Memories of Childhood Summers in the Shadows of Politics

in 53rd Krakow Film Festival

by Harri Römpötti

Most people’s memories of childhood summers are golden. And so it is for Mahdi Fleifel although his memories are coloured by bullet holes and assault rifles.

Fleifel (born in 1979) spent his summer vacations in Ain El Hel-weh, a refugee camp in Lebanon where his parents met and married. Fleifels first feature length movie, documentary A World Not Ours (Alam laysa lana) tells the story of the camp.

Fleifel’s father was obsessed with filming the life of his family and this perhaps sparked the younger Fleifel’s career in cinema as well as providing the main body of material for his film. The home movies provide over 150 hours of footage in several formats, ranging from super-8 to VHS and HD.

The beginning of the documentary sees Fleifel return to Ain El Hel-weh once again, this time as an adult, during the summer of 2010. His camera is rolling again, but now in secret, pointing down as the Lebanese soldiers guarding the camp might not take kindly to being in the film. They reluctantly let Fleifel enter because his refugee status expired almost 30 years previously.

The Fleifels moved from the camp to Dubai and on to Denmark in the 80’s. Had Mahdi grown up in Ain El Hel-weh his memories might not be as nostalgic. In the camp he’s both insider and outsider. He has family and childhood friends there but comes from a different reality. That’s why his movie offers an inside view to the life of the Palestinians and history of the conflict.

Fleifel has named his production company Nakba, after the Arabic word for disaster which has been used to describe the founding of Israel and the displacement of over half a million Palestinians to camps such as Ain El Hel-weh. In his film Fleifel quotes David Ben-Guorion, the first prime minister of Israel, who famously said in reference to the Palestinian refugees that … “one day the old will die and the young will forget”.

A World Not Ours offers a private glimpse of the reality behind the continuous stream of news of Middle East conflict and that alone makes it a good piece of work. But Fleifel manages to expand his private material into a comment on history that has a universal relevance and this makes it one of the highlights of the 2013 Krakow Film Festival.

Making the jump from the private to the universal in a meaningful way is no easy feat but, intriguingly, there was another documentary in Krakow made in almost exactly the same manner. However, this time, the director is from Israel.

In Seeker, Yishai Oren starts by stating that the Kibbutz of his childhood was the best place in the world and uses his home movies to tell the stories of his old pals. But their problems are very different from those growing up in a refugee camp, the likes of which formed the upbringing of Fleifel’s friends. Indeed, in comparison to A World Not Ours, Seekers can seem little more than privileged kids engaging in self-centred whining. Fleifel shows us a reality where the population of the camp has been expanding but the space hasn’t. With the future prospects of the young people there slim, one gets a feeling of peeking in the pressure cooker ready to explode. And that’s where Intifadas are made.

It may be a coincidence that there were two documentaries comprised of home movies in Krakow, but it is more likely to become increasingly popular. The generation that grew up during the age of affordable video cameras are getting to the age where they start making movies and there will be no shortage of footage in many families.

If history made of home movies is to represent the next wave of documentaries, what will be the one after that? Will the current infants and youngsters one day make movies from material shot by phones? There certainly are more cameras rolling than ever, but will that material be kept on the top shelves and bottom drawers? Can it be kept, or are we entering a time whose images will be lost in a bigger way than ever since the invention of photography?

Edited by Laurence Boyce