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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2021 Competition

Review: Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege)

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- Abdallah Al-Khatib tells the story of the siege of Yarmouk, a district of Damascus that used to host the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the world

Review: Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege)

Abdallah Al-Khatib was born in 1989 in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus that was home to the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the world, from 1957 to 2018. Though it started as a camp, over time its inhabitants turned it into a real city with a population of over 100,000. When the Syrian Revolution broke out, intense fights took place there between the Syrian Army and the rebels, and their respective Palestinian allies. In 2013, Assad's regime put it under siege. Al-Khatib worked with the UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency), in programs for youth development and support, and when a friend of his who documented the situation left and gave him his camera, he started filming. When he managed to get to Germany, he was able to start editing what became the documentary Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) [+see also:
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, which had its world premiere in Visions du Réel's Competition and won the Interreligious Award.

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The film opens with the director and protagonist showing his UN ID card, saying loudly that he is leaving the organisation. This is followed by an image of Yarmouk's main street from happier times which morphs into the present view of the street: a barricade at the end of it, colour drained from the shelled buildings and people alike. Al-Khatib accompanies this and many other scenes with his poetic, yet often piercing view of the situation. He often talks about time: under siege, a day does not start with the sunrise or end with a sunset. Instead, its passing is marked by when one gets food.

The film, put together by the seasoned Syrian editor Qutaiba Barhamji, takes the same course as the siege. This means that at the beginning, the people of Yarmouk are still doing relatively well: kids play and laugh, men talk in the streets, and at one point Al-Khatib leads a chant at a spontaneous rally. But as time goes by, the food runs out, there is no electricity nor medicines, and when the director goes with Red Crescent volunteers to try and pick up food from a checkpoint, they are greeted by gunfire. Shelling becomes an everyday occurrence, and people start eating weeds and cactuses.

The director's mother is also very present in the documentary. Once a freedom fighter in Palestine, she is active again, helping elderly people and children and negotiating food deliveries from the occupiers. A particularly painful sequence sees her feeding a small, emaciated girl milk from a bottle. When a couple of scenes later we learn the child died of starvation, we feel complete empathy and understanding for a large group of men and their rage as they try to storm the barricades. They quickly return, chased away by bullets.

Al-Khatib is obviously a charismatic and well-respected person in Yarmouk, doing his best to keep the morale up. As everything falls apart, he and a couple of men bring out a piano. In an absurdly dystopian scene that would work only as a metaphor in a fiction film, he plays it amongst the rubble and dust while his friends sing.

Little Palestine is a difficult watch, but it is also a testament to the spirit of the besieged. Although ISIL took the camp in 2015 and expelled Al-Khatib and many others, before it was finally shut down in 2018, he closes the film on a hopeful note, with two beautiful scenes involving children, all the more touching as they show them as hardened and prematurely grown up. 

Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) is a co-production between Beirut-based Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts and France's Films de Force Majeure, and Swiss company Lightdox has the international rights.

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