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To a Land Unknown

Transactional human beings and accidental places: Palestinian refugees resort to a life of crime in order to survive and be reunited with their loved ones in Europe - in the Official Competition of the 2nd Mediterrane Film Festival, in Malta


Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah) are in two Palestinian refugees their early 20s, living in a densely populated refugee squat somewhere in the Greek capital. They are prepared to steal a woman’s purse or the local shoe store in order to raise €5 or €10 for their next meal. Their body too is readily available, with the two males ready to have sex with male clients in exchange for a meagre two-digit sum. The young Tatiana hopes to lure Chatila into her flat with the mere lure of a beer. She is very disapponited to find out that he doesn’t drink. These are transactional human beings. Their unwilling Greek hosts have thoroughly dehumanised and objectified them.

Greece is an accidental place. Chatila and Reda seek to reach Germany, where their loved ones have already settled. Thirteen-year-old Malik (Mohammad Alsurafa) ended up in the Balkans by accident: his aunt paid for him to reach Italy, but the smugglers dumped him in Athens instead. She is still fighting to be reunited with her young teenage yet very streetwise relative, but she refuses to pay upfront for his journey lest unscrupulous traffickers take him to the wrong destination yet again. Then Chatila comes up with a cunning plan, which could land Malik safely in Italy, plus earn them enough cash to finance their fake passports and dangerous journey to Germany. The operation involve a hesitant Tatiana posing as Malik’s mother.

In the second half of this 105-minute film, Chatila and Reda scramble to find out whether their ploy was successful. And they come up with yet another artful (and barely comprehensible) plan in order to raise the movie, while also vouching for Malik’s wellbeing. What started out as a humanistic movie occasionally slips into disjointed intrigue, with some clunky torture and violence elements. The destiny of several characters is left open and many questions remain intentionally unanswered. Ultimately, the excess of open ends have a negative impact on the movie’s ability to engage and enrapture.

The first message that To a Land Unknown conveys is that the profound dehumanisation and degradation of Palestinians not only leaves them vulnerable, but turns good people into apparent degenerates. Danish-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel (who also co-wrote the movie script, alongside Fyzal Boulifa and Jason McColgan) does this didactic determination. Chatila and Reda are prepared to put other Palestinian refugees just like them through the wringer in order to achieve their objectives. The filmmaker attempts to balance this by repeatedly demonstrating that the two young men carry out their despicable actions with regret and empathy for the victims. Reda questions whether they should return €5 to the woman who they robbed in case she needs to buy medication, and both suffer with moral injury as they inflict pain on people of their nationality.

Secondly, the movie wishes to demonstrate the complexity of the Palestinian diaspora. The aptly named co-production company Nakba FilmWorks leaves little doubt as to such intention. People are forced to leave their home in favour of a foreign continent, language and culture. The director’s family aimed for Sweden, and ended up in Denmark. He was partly raised in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, and names his protagonist Chatila after a Palestinian settlement in Southern Beirut. The characters in a To a Land Known too have little clue as to where they may end up, just like the film title suggests. Fleifel makes it abundantly clear that the fate of Palestinians – real-life and fictitious – is as open-ended as his movie’s final denouement.

To a Land Unknown is in the Official Competition of the 2nd Mediterrane Film Festival, in Malta.

By Victor Fraga - 28-06-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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