Returning to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard with her second feature film, Palestinian director Maha Haj tackles the dynamics of male friendship and the strain of living under occupation in “Mediterranean Fever.” The subtly tender film follows family man Waleed, whose chronic depression hinders his dreams of a writing career and leads him into the path of neighbor and petty criminal 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 partly about the frustration that we Palestinians live with daily, whether we’re in Gaza, the West Bank, inside the state of Israel or exiled. It’s the sense of being imprisoned and not knowing when you’re going to be free, if you’re going to be free.”
Waleed is outspoken in the film, encouraging his children to speak Arabic and arguing with Jalal over their Palestinian identity. In making the film, politics were crucial off-screen as well as on. “I decided not to take money from the Israeli Film Fund although I have every right to,” Haj says, changing her approach from her first feature, which was funded by the organization. “I wanted to make a film without Israeli money because I wanted to present it to the world as Palestinian.” Funding a second feature is often a challenging prospect and this added further complications. “We had to be very patient in order to find money elsewhere, so it took quite a few years. Then COVID was there as an extra bonus to test our patience,” the filmmaker adds.
The film’s setting, the city of Haifa, is a notable element to Haj’s narrative. Often heralded as a site of co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, Haj says this wasn’t what she wanted to convey in the film. “When you say Haifa, the first thing that comes to mind is co-existence,” she says. “But this isn’t the Haifa that I was representing because there are no Israelis in the film. There is the historic Haifa that was occupied in 1948, when so many neighborhoods were left neglected, like ghost towns, and the people who lived there were forced to leave. This is the Haifa that I wanted to show, in a way. It’s not very evident or obvious in the film, but I used these houses and neighborhoods as the last images of the film to depict 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 expectation for Haj. “Because I’m a woman, it’s expected of me to write and make films about women, to talk about women and female friendship. But I just wanted to try something different. There are no rules about it and I’ve 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 female filmmaker, Haj feels that, ultimately, being an artist from Palestine is the true challenge. “We don’t have a Palestinian fund so the difficulties of making a film are the same if you’re a man or woman,” she says.
Looking ahead, Haj will begin writing a third project, which already has a synopsis and producer attached, immediately after Cannes. Her aims are simple and direct: “I don’t think I really have a style, let alone a philosophy,” she says. “Maybe when I make my fifth or sixth film I’ll know but I’m just trying things and having fun with exploring this world. I didn’t go to film school and filmmaking came at a very late stage in my life so I’m still exploring and trying.”