The tragic predicament of the Palestinians and what they’re now being subjected to begs to be analyzed and dissected, with various areas of dubious historical consensus put to new scrutiny; in Mahdi Fleifel’s fiction debut To a Land Unknown, we’re solely in a disorienting present tense, where there’s seldom time to think and reflect, only to agitate for survival. 

The director himself was raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, a background echoed in the film’s key characters, before he settled in Denmark and studied in the UK; thus, he’s never lived under direct contact with the Israeli occupation. Acclaimed docs followed, most notably I Signed the Petition, a 10-minute short that went semi-viral, concerning the calls to boycott Radiohead’s 2017 concert in Tel Aviv. Evidenced by To a Land Unknown, his move to fiction is quite seamless, if always abetted by the grounding of research; the narrative as it unfolds becomes heart-in-the-mouth dramatic, yet the chaotic aggregate of events never stretches credulity.  

It sounds simplistic, but Fleifel’s efforts here (with the also high-rated British filmmaker Fyzal Boulifa and Jason McGolgan onboard as co-writers) put us right in the battered shoes of two archetypal Palestinian refugees, first cousins Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), as they use Athens as a byway to eventually settle in Germany (a sad, prophetic detail given that country’s response to the war), where they hope to open a café serving traditional Middle Eastern delicacies. To a Land Unknown undoubtedly chimes with the refugee narratives seen on screen over the past decade, yet the protagonists’ Palestinian identity creates a particularly grave, urgent viewer connection, encouraging us to see these young-ish men as part of a continuum defined by the constant denial of civil recognition and dignity, and the idea of “home” the most chimeric of concepts.

To be additionally blunt, Fleifel’s debut closely resembles the Dardennes’ recent Tori and Lokita, if that film were at all convincing. There is the trafficker gangster Marwan (Monzer Reyahnah) promising fake travel documents, who accepts payment in installments, yet for all his braggadocio of solidarity (with the prominent photo of Arafat on display in his dwellings, a statesman whose reputation is now less settled), is he preying on these desperate men and simply lining his pockets? A jumble of fresh complications and obstructions arise: to show their efforts aren’t in vain, and to pay a good deed forward, Malik (Mohammad Alsurafa), a resourceful young boy refugee getting by on his own, can potentially be passed off as the son of Chatila’s sometime romantic friend Tatiana, a local played by Dogtooth and The Lobster actress Angeliki Papoulia. And the sheer existential agony of the situation is starkly affecting Reda; a gay man, he turns tricks in a local park to supplement the cousins’ savings, yet the money instead often funds his debilitating heroin addiction. This vulnerability and non-conformist difference abets the dramatically productive tension between the men, contrasting with Chatila’s inconsistent maintenance of family values (he cheats on his wife back in the camp with Tatiana) and occasional chauvinism.

As a last minute window for their own escape becomes apparent, Chatila and Reda’s behavior and actions gradually become indefensible, yet they remain rooting investments because their desperation and alienation are so palpable. The screenplay is also nervy and provocative in pitting the array of different refugees they squat with, who are largely Palestinian together with several Syrians, against one another: the dagger turns sideways in addition to forwards. That Fleifel might be gesturing here to sectarian and democratic conflicts within the Palestinian Territories themselves creates a further tough question lobbed towards us. 

With inspiration taken from the somber wave of ’70s American buddy movies, To a Land Unknown will comfortably endear itself to audiences, avoiding anything overly discursive so it can thrive provoking anger and pathos. I was galvanized by it upon leaving my screening, although it retrospectively faded slightly in my mind. Still, such current and topical cinema is a boon, where finally, we can feel the outside world directly inform what transpires on screen.

To a Land Unknown premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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