Mahdi Fleifel, filmmaker
18 November 2014
‘University is all about demystifying, watching films and aspiring to be a great director. It was my nerdy phase…’
Mahdi Fleifel (above right) is a Palestinian filmmaker who studied film and video production at the University of Wales, then gained a Master’s in feature film screenwriting at Royal Holloway, University of London and another in film direction at the National Film and Television School. He has won awards at film festivals in Abu Dhabi, Berlin and Edinburgh, and earlier this year he won the Best Short Film award at London's Aan Korb film festival.
Mahdi talked to us about his studies in the UK, his passion for storytelling and how crowdfunding (raising investment from the public online) is not as easy as it seems...
What were you hoping to learn from your two postgraduate degrees in film? Why not just pick up a camera and start filming?
'Well, I’m not a big risk taker, so this was the safer option. It offered a stamp of approval. I never really considered the "rock and roll" way – which I do respect – as I would have maybe gotten more experience and it would have challenged me more. When you finish education, you still need to plunge into the industry and there is not much that education can teach you about that – it can only give you glimpses of what it’s like.'
What are the most important lessons about filmmaking that you still carry with you today?
'Everything and nothing! It all kind of adds up in the end. University... it's all about demystifying, watching films and aspiring to be a great director. I was talking about films all the time, it was my nerdy phase with fellow filmmakers – and I was copying stuff. Often I wasn’t producing great stuff, but it’s part of the creative process.
'A lot of people get into imitating, because you’re trying to find a way to create your own language. That often means following what you like. So at university you’re a) figuring out what you want to say, and b) how you want to say it. Then you start to steal things and maybe do them better, and take them to a different universe that is yours.
'It’s all about life experience and growing and being dedicated. If you’re just out to entertain, it can be tough. If you focus on what you as an individual have to offer, then maybe there is more of a chance.'
(Photo by Stephan Röhl / CC 2.0)
• Nominations invited for the Education UK Alumni Awards
You were living in Denmark and went to high school there. Why did you then come and study film in the UK?
'In the UK, I could study in English and do a university degree, but work in something practical as well. During my degree at the University of Wales, we were thrown out there in the field, made to go out there and learn the hard way. We did have a brief, but you could take it in your own direction.'
In your recent film Xenos you blend footage shot in Athens with phone conversations for a gritty and gripping effect. How did you come up with the idea?
'Actually that is something we hadn’t planned – it was a fortunate mistake and it worked. That’s what happens when you’re willing to experiment and to play – and not just completing a project within a budget, which can be quite limiting.'
You launched a crowdfunding campaign for a documentary earlier this year. What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to convince a broad audience that their project is worth investing in?
'It did pretty well, but I wouldn’t do it again. I’m not the best person to talk about crowdfunding, but I can tell you it was very time-consuming. You can’t really do it twice unless you’re a celebrity director who has lots of fans.
'If you’re an ordinary Joe, then you have to go to friends, relatives, family, colleagues, and they will support you that one time. You have one chance, so my advice would be to use it on the right project, and put everything into it. You can’t say, "Now I need money for this other thing…"
'You have to write, get in touch with people and spread the word – it’s a full-time job, and it’s the least fun part. As a director you want to be making the film, not trying to sell it to people. That's a producer's gig.'
Patrick Campbell, Abu Iyad and Mahdi Fleifel accepting an award for their film 'A World Not Ours' in Berlin (Photo by Stephan Röhl / CC 2.0)
What advice would you give to students who want to make film their full-time career?
'You can’t do this part-time! You have to really be dedicated. To a lot of people it sounds quite glamorous and fun, as if you were working in a circus. But even in the circus, it’s really tough. A lot of the time it doesn’t feel rewarding, so you need to keep the momentum going and keep ploughing through the tough times. It can take years to have a film that is really ready to be screened for people.
'I definitely think it’s important to communicate with young filmmakers: they are the future of cinema. One hopes that cinema will improve and get better, and find new ways of communicating this audiovisual language to people. It’s important to pass on what you’ve learned and take it a step further.'
From picking up a camera to shooting a full-length documentary, it's important to learn and collaborate. What is the key to fruitful collaboration?
'You have to work with people who know what they are doing, and accept that you don’t have all the answers. An editor knows more than you, for example, so find good people. People you trust and have fun working with, otherwise there is no point!
'You do need people who share similar tastes, and to a certain extent, who like the same things – though you don’t need to agree on everything. Everyone can fail, everyone can make mistakes. You’re throwing some idea on the table – on a journey, trying to find the right answers to your particular project. It has to be playful, fun and curious. If you stop being curious, then you’ve hit a dead end and creatively that can be really destructive.
'Also, you don’t just want people who say "you’re right" all the time. It’s important to be challenged constantly.'
You've won awards including Best Graduation Film in 2003 from the International Film School of Wales. Did this give you confidence early in your career?
'It did. To be rewarded among peers is a really good encouragement. It takes you to the next step, and you ask: "I’ve done what I can do here. Where can I go next?"
'Awards are best when they’re not the main thing. So you shouldn’t think "I want an award" because that is not about the story, that’s just about winning an Oscar. That is not to say that it isn’t an honourable challenge or goal, but filmmaking shouldn’t be about that – it needs to be about the story.'
What are your ambitions for the future?
'I want to keep bettering myself, keep challenging cinema. And, you know, keep telling great stories.'