Mahdi Fleifel continues his unflinching examination of the multifaceted, global Refugee Crisis with A Man Returned. Globally, over 82 million people have been forcibly removed from their homes. Over 26 million of these people are refugees seeking safe haven in foreign lands.
In A Drowning Man, Fleifel shows us a day in the life of 'The Kid', as he tries to survive another day as an impoverished refugee in a strange, hostile land. A Man Returned is the other side of that image. Reda is a 26-year-old Palestinian who escaped the refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh in Lebanon. Reda spends three years abroad in Greece trying to gain asylum and gainful employment. Sadly, he gains neither, returning to Ain El-Helweh empty handed, save a heroin addiction. He finds life in camp being torn apart by internal strife and the encroaching Syrian War. Despite these incredible obstacles, Reda decides to marry his childhood sweetheart. It is a love story every bit as bittersweet as Ain El-Helweh itself.
Fleifel documents Reda's engagement and parallel heroin addiction with the same unflinching documentarian style as he did with 'The Kid' in A Drowning Man. Reda speaks to the camera, detailing the "curse" of his heroin addiction. It is the unwanted gift he received from Greece after three years in a chaotic cycle of arrest, threat of deportation and denial of asylum. He never specifies where he picked up the curse. Reda invites the viewer in at his most vulnerable, as he begins to shoot up heroin in his father-in-laws bathroom. Viewers can feel the tension as Reda shoots up in the small, door-less washroom a few scant feet from his parents in the living room. Nothing hides the man and his addiction but a turned corner in an open kitchen. Film so intimately, it feels like the viewer shares the open secret. Indeed, as Fleifel follows Reda around the camp and Lebanon, we often see a heroin needle in his arm, plain for all to see.
Everyone in Reda's life knows that he is dealing with a heroin addiction, including his soon-to-be bride. She, like everyone else in his life, vow to help Reda get clean once they marry. Though broken, and terrified of arrest, Reda remains resilient despite his circumstances, and vows to build a life with his bride. He invites the viewer to see the small room he has claimed for the couple. It is little more than a concrete shell, with a damaged, opened ceiling and cracked floor. Reda tells his bride routinely, that they must "make the impossible possible." By the day of the wedding the concrete ruin is made more palatable by teddy bear pillowcases, tapestries to cover the walls and ceilings, and a message that reads "happy, my love?".
Reda tries to make the impossible possible. As he nervously awaits the arrival of his bride, promising himself that he will break his curse for his family, he asks Fleifel, "[h]ave you filmed the bird? It's beautiful." When Fleifel turns the camera to give the viewer a look at the bird, we can only see the sad cage holding him back.
Alongside A Drowning Man, I Signed The Petition, 3 Logical Exits, and A World Not Ours, A Man Returned continues to paint a realistic portrait of the Refugee Crisis that eschews the Western gaze and stereotype. These are real portraits painted by a director with lived experience, cultural connection and an amazing eye for visuals.