Maha Haj on Politics and Male Vulnerability in ‘Mediterranean Fever’

Returning to Un Certain Regard at Cannes with her second feature film, Palestinian director Maha Haj tackles the dynamics of male friendship and the tension of living under occupation in “Mediterranean Fever”. The subtly sweet film follows family man Waleed, whose chronic depression hampers his dreams of a writing career and leads him down the path of delinquent neighbor Jalal, where tragedy awaits. “Mediterranean Fever” is a co-production between Palestine, Germany, France, Cyprus and Qatar, with sales handled by Luxbox.

“The idea came to me five years ago,” says Haj, “but I can’t really tell you how or what exactly inspired me. It is in part about the frustration that we Palestinians live with on a daily basis, whether we are in Gaza, the West Bank, within the State of Israel or in exile. It is the feeling of being imprisoned and not knowing when you are going to be free, if you are going to be free”.

Waleed is outspoken in the film, encouraging his children to speak Arabic and arguing with Jalal about his Palestinian identity. In making the film, politics was crucial both on and off screen. “I decided not to accept money from the Israel Film Fund, even though I have every right to do so,” says Haj, shifting his focus from his first feature film, which was financed by the organization. “I wanted to make a film without Israeli money because I wanted to present her to the world as a Palestinian.” Financing a second property is often a challenging prospect and this added further complications. “We had to be very patient to find money elsewhere, so it took quite a few years. Then COVID appeared as an extra bonus to test our patience”, adds the filmmaker.

The film’s setting, the city of Haifa, is a notable element in Haj’s narrative. Often heralded as a site of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, Haj says this was not what he wanted to convey in the film. “When you say Haifa, the first thing that comes to mind is coexistence,” he says. “But this is not the Haifa that I was portraying because there are no Israelis in the film. There is historic Haifa that was occupied in 1948, when so many neighborhoods were abandoned, like ghost towns, and the people who lived there were forced to leave. This is the Haifa that he wanted to show, in a way. It’s not very apparent or obvious in the film, but I used these houses and neighborhoods as the last images of the film to represent the sadness of Waleed and Jalal, the sadness of the city.”

The decision to focus on a friendship between two men in the film felt like a rejection of Haj’s expectations. “Because I am a woman, I am expected to write and make films about women, to talk about women and friendship between women. But I just wanted to try something different. There are no rules about it and I have always been fascinated by friendships between men. They can be different and intriguing and I wanted to play with this different approach.” Despite these assumptions about being a filmmaker, Haj feels that ultimately being a Palestinian artist is the real challenge for her. “We don’t have a Palestinian background, so the difficulties of making a film are the same whether you’re male or female,” she says.

Looking ahead, Haj will begin writing a third project, which already has a synopsis and producer attached, immediately after Cannes. His goals are simple and straightforward: “I don’t think I really have a style, let alone a philosophy,” he says. “Maybe I’ll find out when I do my fifth or sixth movie, but I’m just trying things out and having fun exploring this world. I didn’t go to film school and film came very late in my life, so I’m still exploring and trying.”

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