It’s rare that music plays such a critical, even philosophical role in a film as it does in Mahdi Fleifel’s passionate, ironic, bittersweet “A World Not Ours,” a docu that flips storytelling and Mideast-Arab cliches on their heads while weaving an irresistible mood of amused melancholy. Occasionally suggesting “The Wonder Years” in a refugee camp, Fleifel’s semi-memoir will draw ethnic and political auds, but will also appeal to viewers sick of the Arab-Israeli conflict — those in the docu certainly are. In its frank, mostly apolitical way, “A World Not Ours” makes a daring and effective effort to humanize those perpetual combatants.
Fleifel, who was born in Dubai and grew up in largely in Denmark, spent his summers at Ain El-Helweh, the now-64-year-old Lebanese refugee camp where his grandfather (82 at the time of filming) moved as a boy after his family’s expulsion from Palestine. The filmmaker’s unusual background seems to have put him in a position of both intimacy and objectivity appropriate for portraying what was, for the young Fleifel, a magical place, and is seen here as an incubator of frustration, regret and anger.
It takes the viewer off guard, then, to hear Roy Eldridge playing “If I Had You,” or the Ink Spots singing “If I Didn’t Care,” as scenes of Ain El-Helweh, then and now, flash across the screen. It can’t be coincidental that much of the score was current, or close to it, when both Israel and the camp were born. But the mix of pop music and misery makes for an intoxicating blend that keeps the viewer off-balance, as Fleifel explains the whos, whats and wheres of Ain El-Helweh.
Chief among Fleifel’s subjects is his childhood friend Bassam Taha, known as Abu Iyad (after the PLO chief of intelligence) and a longtime member of Fatah. Abu Iyad is the most intriguing of the people portrayed in Ain El-Helweh (others are his grandfather, and his uncle Said). His disillusionment and disappointment with what, for any Palestinian refugee, has been a lifelong promise of return, has left him shattered, disgusted and more angry with his own leadership than with his so-called enemy. He also hates Ain El-Helweh: The suicide bombers, he says, used Israel as an excuse — they really just wanted to get out of the camp.
Fleifel’s fondness for the place is taxed, but it doesn’t translate to the viewer, who is entranced, entertained and informed. And the music doesn’t hurt.
Tech credits are fine, with Fleifel serving as his own d.p.; the soundwork by Zhe Wu is first-rate.