A new generation of activists


written by Isaac Feldberg

May 30, 2024

‘Cannes 2024: Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, Eephus, To A Land Unknown

Another standout in the Directors’ Fortnight section, Mahdi Fleifel’s “To A Land Unknown” shines a light on the plight of Palestinian refugees who, caught between exile and alienation, have been left with no land to call their own and little recourse to survive statelessness.

Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), two cousins who’ve fled a camp in Lebanon and found themselves stranded in Athens, have been on the move for most of their lives. To reach Germany, where they dream of opening a café serving Palestinian food, Chatila and Reda must find enough money to be smuggled into the country; as non-citizens denied even the most basic of civic rights, falsifying passports is their only hope. 

When we meet Chatila and Reda, they’re on a park bench, seemingly just sitting around until they pull off a down-and-dirty scheme to steal a middle-aged woman’s purse; it holds only five euros, hardly the jackpot they need to hit to purchase new passports. Fleifel, whose past films have been made against a backdrop of exile, is forthright about the moral compromises his characters are willing to make. At the same time, his sympathies lie with their situation, not their actions; he carefully captures the endless, hard-scrabble negotiations that Chatila is forced to make in his struggles to keep Reda sober from a nasty drug habit that has him turning tricks in a local park.

Once Chatila and Reda encounter a 13-year-old Palestinian orphan (Mohammad Alsurafa) alone in Athens, hoping to reach a relative in Italy, they go out of their way to help, enlisting the help of a local woman (Angeliki Papoulia) with whom Chatila has become romantically involved to escort him on the flight. This, in turn, leads them to hatch a much more underhanded scheme, one that could risk the lives of Syrian refugees in equally dire straits, to obtain the necessary funds to finally make their escape.

“To A Land Unknown” has been crafted with the same flavor of rough, vivid street poetry that flowed through Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” and its forefather, Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” while Fleifel has cited “Midnight Cowboy” as a key influence. The only Palestinian film at Cannes this year, it reverberates forcefully in present tense, remaining grounded—through a set of powerhouse performances from Bakri and Sabbah as well as Thodoris Mihopoulos’ fine-grained 16mm cinematography—in Chatila and Reda’s morally dubious attempts to secure safe passage to a better life.

That the film was shot in Greece last fall, a month after the Oct. 7 attacks, only intensifies the relevance of its subject; for Palestinians, whose homeland was stolen and whose invisibility in exile has left generations without place or identity, the sense of time running out pervades this intensely devastating parable of desperation.

This article is from Rogerebert and is republished under a Creative Commons license.


Isaac Feldberg
Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

To find out more about the film, please visit the film’s official website: www.ToALandUnknown.com

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