In September 2010, 16-year-old Palestinian refugee Mohamad Fahed arrives at London's Heathrow airport and is taken to Britain's most prestigious private school, Eton College. Here, thanks to an all-expenses paid scholarship, he will spend the next two years, adopting the mantle of a public schoolboy in an environment that is largely unknown, even to the British.
Mohamad is a charismatic and thoughtful boy whose life so far has been spent in the Al Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Mohamad's dream is to become a genetic engineer, but as the third generation of his family to be born in exile, with few educational or job opportunities guaranteed, this dream seemed destined to remain unfulfilled. Winning the scholarship, however, will open up his life in ways he cannot yet imagine.
Witness follows Mohamad through his first year at this extraordinary school - as he gets to grips with the unique uniform, tailcoats and starched white collars, and adapts his taste buds to the very different food served in the school canteen, while dealing with the inevitable homesickness and undertaking the process of making new friends among the privileged college students.
While travelling in Lebanon in 2010, I heard about a boy from one of the Palestinian refugee camps who had won a scholarship to Eton College, Britain's most prestigious school. I was intrigued to find out more, attracted by the sharp cultural contrasts his story was likely to reveal. Mohamad Fahed turned out to be a bright, articulate young man, the son of a teacher, whose grandparents had fled Palestine in 1948. Top of his class and with hopes of being a genetic engineer, Mohamad had been given a lucky break. His family and Eton, a school that rarely permits filming, agreed to let me document his story.
There are over 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon; many of whom live in one of the 12 official refugee camps, while others inhabit informal 'gatherings' or settlements. Living conditions vary but housing is often cramped and with only basic infrastructure. Unemployment figures are high, with Palestinians unable to work in a number of professions, including law, engineering and medicine. Mohamad's school is funded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which also provides health and social services to refugees, who cannot claim the same basic rights as either Lebanese citizens or other foreigners living in the country.
The scholarship to Eton has the potential to be life changing for Mohamad, offering a rare chance to fulfill his ambitions. The Horizon Scholarship at Eton is funded by private benefactors and supports an academically gifted boy from the Palestinian territories, enabling him to complete his secondary education at one the best schools in the world and to apply for university during that time. For Mohamad, who had never left Lebanon, it would be a passport to a new life.
I filmed with him in Lebanon, seeing him at school and at home with his family. He showed me the bedroom he shared with his grandmother and two brothers, and I spoke to his parents who were immensely proud of his achievement.
In September, he arrived in the UK for the beginning of term and was thrown straight into school life. To leave his family for a new country would have been daunting in itself, but to join a boarding school like Eton with its distinguished history, facilities and academic reputation was quite something else. Yet Mohamad managed the transition in those early days with surprising ease and enthusiasm, despite a few bouts of inevitable homesickness. He was bemused by Eton's eccentric events like St Andrews Day complete with bagpipe performance and fencing displays, and took up Kung Fu in his first term. His biggest concern was doing well at school and not falling behind, a particular challenge for someone who had not followed the British GCSE syllabus for sciences and mathematics. I was concerned that he might throw himself into his books entirely and miss out on some of the other experiences that Eton could give him: the extraordinary calendar of outside speakers, concerts and societies.
By the second term, however, Mohamad had found his feet, volunteering to sing in Verdi's Requiem, tutoring his housemaster in Arabic and avidly following the events of the Arab Spring. His faith remains an important part of his life at Eton but he is open to dialogue about other points of view and other religions. A scene which did not make the final edit saw him visiting Speakers' Corner in London and marvelling at the freedom people have there to expound on whatever topics they care about. He was amazed at this public expression of different points of view, which for him back home was something to be done behind closed doors.
The film is in some ways as much about Eton's approach to education, as it is about Mohamad's own journey. With annual fees of £25,000, it is perhaps not surprising that the school can provide a very rounded education, encouraging students to pursue their niche interests, be they debating or rowing. But Mohamad is one of the 20 per cent of the school who are on some kind of bursary or scholarship; young people for whom this kind of education would never have been possible otherwise.
When I asked Mohamad towards the end of his first year how he thought he had changed, he talked about how he felt he had become more thoughtful about the world and able to see things from other peoples' perspectives. As his housemaster says at the end of the film: "The most important education that happens in a place like this is by the boys, among the boys." I have no doubt that Mohamad's presence in the school has also broadened the minds of many of its pupils.