One square kilometre.
Seventy thousand people.
Welcome to Ain el-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon.
We start with a close-up of the back of a headrest as a car is stopped at a military checkpoint. We can see soldiers at the side of the frame. The cameraman has the camera on his lap, the image suggests tension and potential violence. But this footage is not typical of A World Not Ours. It is not another documentary of illicit footage and violent reprisals. What we have instead is a personal film built of interviews with the director’s family and friends. It treats the subjects as more than just refugees, although obviously their stateless circumstances inform much of their lives.
The people who live in Ain el-Helweh either came here from Palestine in 1948 or they are descended from people who did. The lucky move out but no one moves in. The Lebanese army controls who can go into the camp – you’re only allowed in if you have the right pass. You get one by being born there – and its not the exclusive club it’s beginning to sound like. People who live in Ain el-Helweh are not allowed to work in Lebanon, they have no passports so they live a life of lazy alley-sitting. A job can consist of collecting old drink cans, stamping on them and selling them for less than a dollar a kilo. Many of the people in the film could pass for the slackers in the recently reviewed Oh Boy and Frances Ha, except that their slackering is imposed on them. Abu Eyad sits and smokes and watches the world go by as much as Niko, but his situation is very different.
Fleifel knows that a film about the Ain el-Helweh refugee camp does not have box office record breaker written all over it. It needs a hook to catch viewers’ interest and he uses football. In the past he has returned to the camp to watch successive world cups – football is something that everyone in the camp used to enjoy. They would pick a team and scream their support for a month. The reason for choosing a team was very different to the usual reasons in the West. Eyad chose Italy. Because they were stylish, effortlessly cool and he liked the kit? No. Because in 1982 the Italian Football Federation dedicated their World Cup win to the PLO.
Mahdi Fleifel has been visiting and filming in Ain el-Helweh for years. He lived some of his childhood there, though he mainly grew up in Denmark, and still has family and friends in the camp. He is an insider, yet he voices the film in English. It is not a film directly about the Palestine-Israeli situation. Instead it focuses on life in this huge camp. Israel is mentioned, how could it not be, but the film shows normal life – as far as life is norrmal in a refugee camp. When violence is mentioned it is intra-Palestinian. ‘I blame Palestine, not Israel,’ says one man. There are men everywhere and women nowhere. Fleifel’s father has provided much of the footage, as he has been videoing camp life for years. The film is titled after a book of short stories by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated in 1972.
The phrase refugee camp may be giving images of tents and mud, but Ain el-Helweh is a cement town of narrow alleyways. The houses are generally unpainted and in need of repair. There are guns everywhere, hanging on the walls, in the pockets of the young men. You might think that everyone wants to get out, as quickly as possible. But Fleifel’s grandfather has stayed since he was sixteen, refusing all attempts to get him to move to Denmark to be with his daughter and her family. Fleifel cannot understand this, but he realises it is related to his grandfather’s right to return to his land. To leave the camp would be to admit that he will not be going back.
The jazz music interludes are deliberately jarring in a film that includes gun-shot in the background of interviews. There are moments of humour, as with when Eyad is suddenly worried that the letters on his new T shirt are in Hebrew. As a joke a friend pulls a gun on him and pretends to shoot him. Here there would be ramifications. Prison might even be mentioned. In Ain el-Helweh it passes as humour. Life is very different.
A World Not Ours
UK, Lebanon, UAE, Denmark