Fighting for Oscar glory

Dubai-born filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel's campaign for Academy Award recognition


Dubai-born film director Mahdi Fleifel tells Benita Adesuyan why he’s bidding for Oscar glory with A World Not Ours.

Every filmmaker dreams of having their work nominated for an Academy Award – and maybe even winning one. Now, one young home-grown director is trying to turn that dream into a reality.

Mahdi Fleifel’s documentary A World Not Ours, shows the lives of three generations of exile in Ein el-Helweh in southern Lebanon – the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country. Using personal video recordings from family archives, the film is a touching, and fascinating story of identity, friendship and family. Since it debuted at Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, the movie has been screened at more than 100 film festivals. It has secured theatrical runs in France and the UK, and received the SANAD grant in 2012 from Abu Dhabi Film Festival. It also won three awards at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012.

Despite the overwhelming swell of positive feedback, The Academy has not picked up on this gem. So Dubai-born Fleifel is taking matters into his own hands, and has launched a crowd funding initiative with to raise the US$30,000 (Dhs110,190) needed to secure its run in Los Angeles and New York, giving the film a chance to qualify for the Oscars shortlist in 2015. ‘Lots of the audiences asked us “how come we see the Oscars shortlist and your film is not there?”’ explains the 34-year-old director. ‘We started to look into the regulations for the Academy and found we could actually qualify the film ourselves
by following certain rules.’

Fleifel and producer Patrick Campbell discovered that if the film was shown for a week in New York, and Los Angeles, and reviewed in the media by certain publications, that the film would be eligible for consideration. But hiring a cinema for a week in New York or Los Angeles is neither easy nor cheap.

‘It costs money. That’s why we thought if we try to start a crowd-funding campaign we can use that as an opportunity for those who embraced the film to be part of the journey of trying to qualify it.’

Fleifel hopes that fans of the movie at home and abroad will help it get into a contender’s position for next year. ‘You can donate anything from $10 to $15,000 (Dhs36-Dhs55,000), which gives you an Executive Producer credit on the film. If people like it, then what’s ten bucks? It’s what you would spend on a Coke and an ice-cream. For me, it’s not all about the money but raising awareness so people look forward to it when the movie comes to a theatre near them.’

The Academy can be a hard panel to impress – even getting it to notice your film takes more than just money and chutzpah. Fleifel believes that documentaries about Palestine are put in a ‘ghetto’, but this doesn’t seem to dampen his verve for the project.

‘We think we have a strong film. It’s a long shot to get a nomination, let alone win an Oscar, and it’s not about having a statuette in our office – it’s more to try and bring the film out and shed some light on this topic.’

A World Not Ours has been a labour of love for Fleifel. His father lived in the refugee camp and had been filming this sort of existence since the 1980s and the film makes use of this vintage footage and Fleifel has put a lot of personal and financial investment into the success of the film. ‘I used some of my savings, some grants – Abu Dhabi Film Festival was very generous. I’d say the film ended up costing £170,000 (Dhs1 million) and we’re still paying off some loans.

The movie was made by a core of three people – myself, the editor and producer and I got help from some talented people I went to film school with. No one was paid a full wage, in fact I still haven’t been paid, I’ve covered my expenses and I live out of my suitcase and I use that as an opportunity to save paying rent.’

Fleifel and his team are confident that a Palestinian documentary can get to the Oscars nomination list, not just for the benefit of their film but for the future too.

‘If this film reaches The Academy members, we stand a really strong stance. I don’t see why a Palestinian film shouldn’t win an Oscar. Hany Abu-Assad got two nominations this year [for Omar]. The times are changing and hopefully Hany will win the Oscar this year and pave the way for others. If not then hopefully we will win it next year.’
To support A World Not Ours, visit

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