‘To A Land Unknown’ Review: Sympathetic Story Of Stranded Palestinian Refugees Avoids Turning Them Into Heroes – Cannes Film Festival

By the time we meet them, Chatila and Reda already are down in the lower depths. Cousins from Palestine, they have spent much of their lives living as refugees on the run. Having made it as far as Athens, a kind of holding zone for people from the Middle East trying to slip into Europe, they are trying to scrape together money to get to Germany.

Ferrety Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) is masterminding the cousins’ next fundraising operation in one of Athens’s pleasantly proletarian parks, directing his sweet-faced cousin Reda (Aram Sabbah) to fall over on his skateboard in front of a middle-aged woman who almost certainly will help him. Chatila’s job is to snatch her handbag and run. It’s mean, it’s shabby, and it’s miserably cheap. Their mark’s purse contains 5 euros, the price of a couple of coffees. They won’t be able to pay for new passports with that.

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Mahdi Fleifel, noted Palestinian-Danish director of documentaries including the multiple award-winning A World Not Ours, brings a fact-finder’s unflinching eye to his first non-fiction feature, To a Land Unknown. There obviously is a temptation to romanticize victims of any crisis as heroes, but Fleifel stoically resists it; being desperate doesn’t make people good.

These are people with nothing, which doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose. When we hear Chatila talking on the phone to his wife and son, who are still living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, we see immediately that he was not always a petty thief. In this filthy corner of the cradle of Western culture, however, he has been consumed by the ruthlessness of the survivor. When the chips are down, he recites his mantra, which is a dream of normal life: a café in Berlin, where his wife would cook and Reda could run the bar. As Reda observes, it provides him with a temporary comfort.

Reda is a weaker vessel. “We’re bad people, Chatila,” he says tearfully as he finds himself running his cousin’s last and worst scam, where the two of them pose as people smugglers and rake in the money paid by would-be immigrants for a journey they never will take. Unlike Chatila, Reda can’t live with this new picture of himself. Heroin helps. He is constantly trying to stay clean, frequently backsliding. The two of them live in a squat set up as a hostel. Drugs always are around. So is local dealer Abu Love (Mouataz Alshaltouh), who describes himself as a poet and is fully in love with his outlaw status in a way Chatila and Reda never could be.

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The hostel is a cage for random males, which means that Chatila will turn for help to the only woman he knows – a drunken good-time girl called Tatiana (Angeliki Papoulia) who sometimes hangs out in their park – when he takes an orphaned boy he meets in the street under his wing. Young Malik (Mohammed Alsurafa) says he has an aunt in Italy who will provide for him; Chatila comes up with a plan to fly him there. He just needs a suitable woman to accompany him, posing as his mother.

Tatiana hardly is suitable. She also wants a sizable cut of the money the aunt sends as “expenses.” Of course, Chatila is looking to make money out of the deal; he tells Reda that everyone wins this way. Everyone has his or her own ulterior motives — certainly, Tatiana has lurched around the block often enough to know an opportunity when she sees one. Nobody is trustworthy.

Fleifel brings a steady hand to this material, never trying to overstep the limits of these two men’s daily experience to grandstand or wave a flag. He cites Midnight Cowboy as an inspiration; others have compared To a Land Unknown to the Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief. What it shares with both these films is a generously simple sympathy with these men, even when their criminal activities become monstrous.

This would be unworkable were it not for the warmth of the performances by Bakri and Sabbah, who cling to each other, fight and make up again with the urgency of people whose only remnant of home, having been exiled twice over, is each other. Sabbah’s soft, hangdog features express the pathos of Reda’s addiction.

When Bakri is flirting with Tatiana or speaking to his wife, we have a brief teaser of the Chatila who might have existed if his life had been normal: funny, charming, energetic, a good neighbor. Chatila gets things done; he will get to Germany somehow. What is disquieting is the thought of what kind of man he will be by the time he gets there.

Title: To a Land Unknown
Festival: Cannes (Directors’ Fortnight)
Director: Mahdi Fleifel
Screenwriter: Fyzal Boulifa, Mahdi Fleifel, Jason McColgan
Cast: Mahmood Bakri, Aram Sabbah, Angeliki Papoulia, Mohammad Alsurafa, Mouataz Alshaltouh
Sales agent: Salaud Morisset (international)
Distributor: Eurozoom (France)
Running time: 1 hr 45 min

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