Palestinian film draws praise as Cannes stars take discreet stances on Gaza war

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The war raging in Gaza has given added prominence to director Mahdi Fleifel’s drama “To a Land Unknown”, the only Palestinian film to be screened in Cannes this year. While festival organisers have reined in protests, filmmakers, actors and activists have sought to shed light on the plight of Gaza’s population and the hostages still held in the war-ravaged Palestinian enclave. 

Issued on: 23/05/2024 - 13:36

5 min

“To a Land Unknown”, Fleifel’s fiction debut, opens with a quote by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said: “It’s a sort of fate of Palestinians not to end up where they started, but somewhere unexpected and far away.” 

Spoken decades ago, Said’s words capture the tragedy of a stateless people whose diaspora outnumbers those left behind. They acquire added resonance today as Palestinians in Gaza seek refuge from Israel's devastating military offensive, unleashed in response to the October 7 attacks carried out by Hamas. 

The only Palestinian film in Cannes this year, Fleifel’s movie premiered on Wednesday in the Directors’ Fortnight, which runs parallel to the festival. It follows two exiled cousins yearning for a fresh start in a social-realist drama that was warmly received by film critics at the French Riviera gathering. 

A still from Mahdi Fleifel's "To a Land Unknown". A still from Mahdi Fleifel's "To a Land Unknown". © Courtesy of the Directors' Fortnight

'Haunted by exile’ 

"To a Land Unknown” chronicles the tribulations of Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbagh), two Palestinian cousins who are stranded in Athens after fleeing the camp where they lived in Lebanon. Chatila's dream is to go to Germany to open a café and bring his wife and child over. But he has to contend with Reda’s drug addiction and a host of other woes holding them back. Penniless and with no ID, the pair resort to various illicit methods in an inextricable spiral that underscores the enormous challenges faced by undocumented migrants. 

Fleifel said the film’s script was inspired by the experiences of exiles he met while filming a previous documentary.  

“One disappeared without leaving a trace. Another died suddenly two years ago in Athens of an overdose,” he recalled. “A third one arrived in London, where I was living at the time. He explained to me that he had crossed the border with €20,000 in his pocket, leaving behind four gagged men in a cellar.” 

Le realisateur Mahdi Fleifel et ses comediens, le 22 mai, à Cannes. Mahdi Fleifel (left) with actors Mahmood Bakri (centre) and Aram Sabbaghet at the film's premiere in Cannes. © David Rich, FRANCE 24

The filmmaker, who grew up in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, said he was “haunted” by stories that echoed Chatila and Reda’s. He described himself as “an exiled fillmmaker who makes films about exile”. 

After the screening, the lead actors Bakri and Sabbagh, both of them Palestinian, were joined by a handful of female activists on stage brandishing Palestinian flags. One of the women shouted, “Free Palestine”. 

Red-carpet statements 

On the eve of the festival, Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux stated his aim to “host a festival without polemics”, adding that “the politics should be up on the screen”. 

 ‘An enigma about a trans woman who ran from Gaza’ (2024)

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77th Cannes Film Festival: ‘An enigma about a trans woman who ran from Gaza’ (2024) © France 24 (Renaud Lefort, Juliette Montilly)

Organisers have been at pains to prevent Gaza war protests from taking place on the Croisette, Cannes’ iconic seaside boulevard. The festival’s traditional red-carpet protests have been relatively subdued compared to last year’s edition, when a woman dressed in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukraine flag covered herself in fake blood ahead of a gala premiere. 

Oscar-winning Hollywood icon Cate Blanchett appeared to make a more subtle statement of support for Palestinians on Monday when she revealed the green lining of her black-and-white dress on the red carpet, in what was widely interpreted as a walking tribute to the Palestinian flag. Earlier in the festival, Laura Blajman-Kadar, a survivor of the October 7 Hamas attacks, carried a more explicit message by wearing a bright yellow dress with the faces of hostages held in Gaza and a sash reading, “Bring them home”. 

On Wednesday, dozens of filmmakers and actors including Valérie Donzelli, Loubna Azabal and Laëtitia Eido attended a rally organised by women’s group Guerrières de la Paix (Warriors for Peace) to call – “in one breath” – for an urgent ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all remaining hostages. They held placards spelling out their demands in Arabic, Hebrew, French and English. 

Film workers join activists from the women's group Guerrières pour la paix in Cannes to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all hostages. Film workers join activists from the women's group Guerrières pour la paix in Cannes to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all hostages. © Courtesy of Guerrières pour la paix

Ground Zero 

Palestinians in Cannes have done their best to raise awareness of Gaza’s plight. On the sidelines of the festival, Filmmaker Rashid Masharawi has pitched a tent on a beach in Cannes where he is showing some 20 short films made in Gaza since the start of the film, part of a project dubbed “Ground Zero”. 

“I decided to act as a bridge between these young filmmakers and the rest of the world,” he said. “We must not forget that there is another war running parallel to this murderous war: the war of images and storytelling. We must be able to show the world our reality.” 

Evenement en soutien à Gaza au pavillon de l'Algérie, à Cannes, le 21 mai 2024. The Palestinian flag is raised at the Algerian Pavilion in Cannes for a homage to the victims of the war in Gaza, on May 21, 2024. © Hussein Al Ganaini, FRANCE 24

Masharawi said he had reached out to festival organisers about giving the short films an official screening, but to no avail. On Tuesday, he attended another event in support of Gaza hosted by the Algerian Pavilion in Cannes. Under a Palestinian flag, attendants observed a minute of silence in memory of the tens of thousands of people killed in Gaza since the start of the war. 

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