In the environs of Hollywood, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the newest blockbuster from Marvel Studios, has become the talk of the town. Overseas, however, a different movie is making waves: “Mediterranean Fever,” the latest work from Palestinian film director and screenwriter Maha Haj.
“Mediterranean Fever,” a drama about a complicated friendship between two Palestinians, made its much-anticipated May 17 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, a milestone not only for Haj but also for cinema in Palestine.
Any cinephiles who failed to attend the debut of “Mediterranean Fever” at Cannes will have to make do with the barest outlines of its plot as they weigh whether to see the film. The trailers that have surfaced so far prove intriguing but enigmatic.
The trailers that have surfaced so far prove intriguing but enigmatic.
IMDb, the world’s go-to online database for movies, offers a peek at the film’s nuanced, character-driven plot: “Waleed dreams of a writing career while suffering from depression. He develops a relationship with his neighbor — a small-time crook. While the scheme turns into an unexpected friendship, it leads them into a journey of dark encounters.”
Though the IMDb description offers little insight into the potential of “Mediterranean Fever,” Haj’s previous accomplishments indicate that the film carries significant promise. Her 2016 movie “Personal Affairs,” a drama about a Palestinian family divided between Israel and the West Bank –– Haj’s first time directing a feature-length film –– also appeared at Cannes. In addition to establishing Haj as a film director to watch on the international scene, “Personal Affairs” won major awards at the Haifa International Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Even prior to the premiere of “Personal Affairs,” Haj had built an impressive resume. Born in 1970 in the Israeli city of Nazareth — home to several characters in “Personal Affairs” — Haj got her start in the motion picture industry working as an artistic designer for movies by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman and Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri. She also studied Arabic and English literature at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, often ranked as Israel’s leading university.
Despite Haj’s respectable track record, the lukewarm reception to “Personal Affairs” in the United States indicates that “Mediterranean Fever” will have to overcome some skepticism from her limited American audience. The Hollywood Reporter labeled “Personal Affairs” “a promising if schematic first feature,” calling the film “too modest to stir much commercial action.” Variety lamented that a sizable portion of the movie, lacking more than glancing references to “history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” seemed “as though it could have been set anywhere.”
“Mediterranean Fever” will have to overcome some skepticism from Haj’s limited American audience.
For all this criticism, Variety alluded to how Haj might upend expectations in future films. The magazine’s review, noting that “Personal Affairs” marked the beginning of Haj’s career overseeing feature-length films, cited the movie’s “isolated moments that hint at Haj as a director capable of making something less slight.” As “Mediterranean Fever” spreads to movie theaters across the globe, it will determine whether Haj has managed to break the mold that The Hollywood Reporter and Variety cast for her.
[Tiraz, Textiles, and Jordan and Palestine’s Shared History]
[Palestinian Women, Oral History, and the Preservation of Memory]
Critics have yet to give an initial verdict on “Mediterranean Fever.” Despite the Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News praising the movie as “a testament to the quality of films emerging from the region,” reviews of “Mediterranean Fever” have yet to emerge.
As the motion picture industry awaits critics’ consensus, Haj may find comfort in the diverse slate of supporters behind “Mediterranean Fever.” In 2018, the film — then in its infancy — received a prestigious “development support grant” from the International Festival of Mediterranean Cinema in Montpellier, better known in the film industry as “Cinémed.” The Doha Film Institute, a nonprofit tied to a number of Qatari royals and officials, also lent assistance to Haj’s project, while the Council of Europe in 2020 awarded “Mediterranean Fever” €185,000 –– about $195,000.
It speaks to Haj’s talent and the promise of “Mediterranean Fever” that the film has attracted support from groups across Europe and the Middle East. At the same time, the movie’s courtship of foreign patrons highlights the reality that, while the Palestinian Authority has sometimes assisted filmmakers from its territory, Palestinian directors are working with far more limited means than their counterparts in better-resourced corners of the Arab world.
The film has attracted support from groups across Europe and the Middle East.
Morocco and Jordan, popular filming locations for movies set in the Middle East or unnamed, picturesque deserts, have secured their footholds in the motion picture industry by bolstering organizations such as the Moroccan Center for Cinematography and the Jordanian Royal Film Commission. “Mediterranean Fever” also represents just one of many projects backed by the Doha Film Institute’s “Qumra” initiative “to provide mentorship, nurturing, and hands-on development for filmmakers from Qatar and around the world,” with countries elsewhere in the Persian Gulf making similar investments.
Even as nonprofits such as the Palestine Film Institute try to bridge these gaps, the Palestinian territories’ ambiguous status in the international community may add to the challenges confronting “Mediterranean Fever.”. The film’s grant from the Council of Europe, for example, included an all too telling note in the fine print: “This designation shall not be construed as recognition of a State of Palestine and is without prejudice to the individual positions of Council of Europe member States on this issue.”
“Mediterranean Fever” comes from a long line of Palestinian movies that have faced these issues: in 2006, the Academy Awards came under fire for considering “Paradise Now,” a Palestinian film about two would-be suicide bombers, for a top prize. Israeli critics opposed the film’s nomination on the grounds that it humanized political violence, whereas many Palestinians denounced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for listing “Paradise Now” as having come from “the Palestinian territories,” not “Palestine.” Though “Mediterranean Fever”discusses far less controversial subjects, Haj will still have to navigate this complicated geopolitical environment.
Haj will have to navigate a complicated geopolitical environment.
Whatever becomes of “Mediterranean Fever,” Haj has plenty of allies at her side. The French firms Dulac Distribution and Luxbox have already tied themselves to the film, and Haj is also working with the production companies AMP Filmworks in Cyprus, Majdal Films in Israel, Metafora Production in Qatar, Pallas Film in Germany, and Still Moving in France. These partnerships will no doubt serve her well when she directs her next feature-length film.
Cinephiles from Palestine and across the world will be watching for the early reviews of “Mediterranean Fever.” A well-received premiere will go a long way toward establishing Palestine’s place in the motion picture industry. In any case, the movie will have to speak for itself.
Juliette Lepoutre and Pierre Menahem, two of Haj’s primary collaborators at Still Moving, said of her latest film in a recent statement, “’Mediterranean Fever’ is such a subtle piece of work that needs to be handled with special care.”