Presented in the selection of the ACID at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, the documentary “Little Palestine – diary of a siege” is a dive as gripping as it is terrible in the survival of a district and its inhabitants, in full war in Syria .
What is it about ?
Following the Syrian Revolution, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad besieged the Yarmouk neighborhood (Damascus), the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world. Yarmouk then finds himself totally isolated. Born in 1989 in this neighborhood, Abdallah Al-Khatib, the director, worked before the Revolution for the UN as coordinator of activities and volunteers, as well as at UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Middle East) as head of the Youth Support Center (Youth Support Center) from Yarmouk. Armed with his camera, he bears witness to daily deprivation, while paying tribute to the courage of the children and residents of the neighborhood.
Currently in theaters.
The Syrian conflict has been the subject of a great deal of media coverage around the world since its outbreak in 2011. But the documentaries filmed in situ by the victims themselves of this human tragedy, first-hand sources, showing the direct effects of this conflict, are ultimately not that numerous. This is what makes the price and the force of the testimony of Little Palestine – Diary of a Siege, whose images, at the same time terrible and poignant, have the force of an uppercut.
“The most formidable prison of the besieged is time”
“In a state of siege, the real prison of the besieged is time. Beware. If you follow time, it will kill you. Fill the void with meaning, while you can.” the director comments with his soft voice, in a voice-over story that is as much poetic reflection as a perspective of the very harsh images that pass before our eyes.
In a seat, the notion of the day changes; time expands, endlessly. “A day is no longer defined by sunrise and sunset, but by your first and last bite of food. In a state of siege people no longer refer to the usual morning or evening greetings, instead they ask: “What did you eat today?”
And to add: “It doesn’t matter whether it is Friday or Saturday. Travel is linked to the search for food, so time also becomes linked to it. The time under siege is long and morbid. The day does not always end, at less than you find food. As soon as you find some, the time seems less long. Because the siege upsets the temporality of the individuals “.
Abdallah Al-Khatib thus captures many situations. Of the most banal, even surrealist, like this man who reconstructs a low wall with concrete blocks, in a building completely gutted by bombs. Tragic spectacle and derisory attempt to ward off horror and restore some semblance of meaning to everyday life.
Moments of joy and comfort, however fleeting, when a piano came down from a devastated apartment to improvise a song. Even the overwhelming and unbearable images of these children, reduced to cutting and eating the grass collected on a vacant lot. “We eat the food of the cows!” hilarious children swing at the director. The innocence of childhood sacrificed on the altar of war and its atrocious reality.
War devours everything. Walls like Men. A spectacle of desolation, but where life tries to continue despite everything; between anger, rage, helplessness and despair. “Some mothers come to cry when a plane passes without dropping a bomb on them and their children, which would have ended their suffering and the hunger that tortured them” do we hear in the documentary …
The devastating effects of the war in Syria may well be visible on the screen, on the fields of ruins of this once so alive district of Yarmouk, on the faces of women, men and children emaciated by hunger which is becoming logically an obsession, it nevertheless remains out of scope.
Except for a few freezing moments, like this sequence where a helicopter of the armed forces of Bashar Al-Assad which flies over the loose neighborhood not far from where the filmmaker films an explosive barrel. Bombs often dropped in urban areas, including the victims will above all be civilians…
A painful epilogue
Beyond the tragedy unfolding before our eyes, Yarmouk is also quite a symbol. Because in the history of the Palestinian national movement, the district of Yarmouk, which covers barely 2 km², was initially a refugee camp created by the UN in 1957 to accommodate Palestinians driven from their lands, or fleeing the Arab-Israeli war after the creation of the Hebrew state in 1948.
But it was much more than a gigantic refugee camp, the largest in the Middle East, as is often presented. A center of identity incubation, a place of economic and cultural mixing, Yarmouk still hosted around 160,000 Palestinians at the start of the conflict, in 2011, or a third of their total number in Syria.
Yarmouk’s ordeal in fact intensified in April 2015, when the Islamic State organization, with the help of fighters from the Front al-Nosra, the ex-branch of Al-Qaeda, seized from the Yarmouk camp, before expelling his jihadist rival a year later.
One of the last strongholds held by the Islamic State, the camp was shelled by the Al-Assad regime, supported by local Palestinian factions, while Russian officers supervised the operation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Man (OSDH). In May 2018, 1,600 combatants and civilians were evacuated. Only 100 to 200 people remained to live – rather survive – in this heap of ruins, against all odds.
The end of a long-lasting tragedy that Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), already described in 2014: “In the lexicon of man’s inhumanity towards his brother is added a new term: Yarmouk”. Little Palestine – Diary of a Siege makes a poignant and salutary contribution to it.