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A Drowning Man review - stirring Oscar-qualified short from Mahdi Fleifel


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With a slew of moving topical documentaries under his belt, the acclaimed 'refugee director' Mahdi Fleifel goes back to his fictional filmmaking roots with A Drowning Man.

In a poignant short about the daily trials and tribulations of a Palestinian refugee who’s fled to Greece, Fleifel does what the majority of the media either cannot or will not do in taking a moment to humanise its lead character.

A refugee is a common term these days, but one that’s typically seen as a statistic or something to fear. Rarely do we get the opportunity to figuratively walk a day in their shoes, which is exactly what Fleifel offers the viewers of this grimly eye-opening short. As his award-winning documentaries, Xenos and A World Not Ours, told the real stories of refugee struggle, Fleifel is in a unique position to tell a fictional story with realism and grit.

Image courtesy of A Drowning Man

A Drowning Man’s lead role, played by Atef Alshafei, is credited as The Kid, which likely refers to his lack of a social identity as a refugee, trying to settle into a new country without any family or documentation. The film opens with a brief dream sequence of The Kid isolated at sea. Grasping onto his few belongings to keep him afloat, he lets out a scream that’s sonically mixed so well with the sounds the ocean, birds and sea breeze that it’s barely heard.

The Kid then wakes up in a dusty, dim, shared flat, where the viewer realizes that his reality isn’t much different from the aforementioned dream sequence. The most menial of creature comforts, such as cigarettes, a lighter to light them or even a bite to eat, are far and few between.After getting dressed and being turned down a bit of cash to get some food in his stomach, The Kid heads out with the sole purpose of surviving in a city where he’s an afterthought.

The story that ensues once The Kid sets out to the city depicts the predatory nature of people as well as the lengths that refugees are driven to in order to make ends meet in the most modest definition of the term. Where Fleifel shines, though, is in the interactions between The Kid and the city’s folk as well as his time spent alone on screen. It’s in these moments that the viewer gets a sense for how isolated one can feel without any crutch of support, even in a city of millions.

By the end of the short film, The Kid gets the meal that he’d sought all day, but that doesn’t necessarily imply a happy ending. He may not be going to bed hungry, but The Kid is in no better a position than he was the day before. The following day he’ll wake up and have to face the same struggles. And the day after that, and the day after that...

While most people expect refugees to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and contribute to society, A Drowning Man makes it clear that the majority of stress for an undocumented person in a new country comes simply from surviving. It’s unique perspectives like this, ones that paint people in this unfortunate situation as individuals with their own wants and needs, rather than a blanket societal issue, that will be crucial in understanding how we can start solving these problems.

A Drowning Man is available on Amazon Prime. Watch it here

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