Two Palestinian refugees are stranded in Athens in Mahdi Fleifel’s raw, resonant drama

'To A Land Unknown'

Source: Cannes

‘To A Land Unknown’

Dir. Mahdi Fleifel. Palestine. 2024. 105mins

Two desperate Palestinian cousins are hopelessly stranded in Athens, Greece, in Mahdi Fleifel’s heartbreaking migrant drama. Arrestingly plotted and bracingly acted, this story about the biting hardships faced by refugees who have left the danger of their homeland only to be left nationless could hardly be more relevant. The only Palestinian feature premiering at Cannes, To A Land Unknown is crafted with painstaking care, and features two strong lead performances that are thoughtfully translated to the screen by an empathetic lens. 

 Grounded, and emotional

Ever since Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah) arrived paperless in Greece from Lebanon, they have been trying to emigrate to Germany with the dream of opening a cafe. But finding a way there isn’t easy. Buying fake passports also requires substantial funds, which these two cousins don’t yet have. They turn to various unavoury methods to fund their travel documents: stealing from unsuspecting locals in the park, shoplifting shoes and selling them on the street and even turning to prostitution. 

Of course, it is impossible to view To A Land Unknown and not consider what is presently happening in Gaza. Fleifel, who profiled the refugee camps of Lebanon in his award-winning 2012 documentay A World Not Ours, explores what it feels like to be nationless, to be stuck between borders that are not your own, between the life you once led and the life you hope to lead again. You end up clinging to the closest reminder of home. For Chatila, home is Reda. 

Chatila is the more responsible of the pair, dutifully stowing away their earnings. He also has a wife and a two-year-old son still in a Lebanese camp who he hopes to bring over once he has earned enough cash in Germany. That goal renders him serious and single-minded, a tone Bakri hones through his stern demeanour and tense body. Reda, on the other hand, is a recovering drug addict, whose clean moments rarely lasts more than a month. Sabbah a has quiet, sensitive energy. You can guess Reda has probably always looked toward Chatila for guidance, and Chatila has always worked hard to keep his unmoored cousin safe. Their partnership comes to a head, however, when Reda blows their money on drugs, meaning they’ll have to start all over again

To A Land Unknown is a film whose tension escalates from the myriad setbacks experienced by this pair. They encounter Malik (Mohammad Alsurafa), a young boy left in Greece without any parents, trying to travel to his aunt in Italy. For a while, Malik’s presence creates some warm scenes between the trio which offer this bleak story some of its few moments of joy. Yet this makeshift family doesn’t last; Chatila hatches a plan to scrounge up cash by returning the child to his aunt through Tatiana (Angeliki Papoulia), a tenacious Greek woman he is dating. It’s a simple scheme with plenty of complications. And it’s the complications that gives To A Land Unknown a biting spirit. Because in a world in which the political, emotional, and legal deck is stacked against refugees, failure is ever present.

Some of the somber mood arises from the production design. Chatila and Reda occupy an overpopulated, dilapidated corner of Athens where many others from the Middle East sleep, and it is populated by drug dealers, enforcers, and other shady characters. The film suddenly shifts, turning into an intense kidnapping thriller. Even with the change, however, it remains grounded and emotional, balancing those genre conceits with a noted humanism: we see just how far Chatila is willing to go to accomplish his dreams.

Production companies: Inside Out Films, Nakba Filmworks

International sales: Salaud Morisset

Producers: Mahdi Fleifel, Geoff Arbourne

Screenplay: Mahdi Fleifel, Fyzal Boulifa, Jason McColgan

Cinematography: Thodoris Mihopoulos

Production design: Ioanna Soulele

Editing: Halim Sabbagh

Music: Nadah El Shazly

Main cast: Mahmood Bakri, Aram Sabbagh, Mohammad Alsurafa, Angeliki Papoulia, Mouataz Alshalton, Mohammad Ghassan, Monzer Reyahnah