Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege), 2021.
Directed by Abdallah Al-Khatib.
After the Syrian Revolution, Al-Assad’s regime besieges the district of Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world. Yarmouk is cut off. The director records the daily deprivations while celebrating the people’s courage.
Abdallah Al-Khatib’s deeply upsetting, righteously angry in-the-trenches documentary captures human endurance – and annihilation – at its most gruelling. Al-Khatib, himself a former resident of Syria’s Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world, takes his camera throughout the district after it’s cut off from the outside world by a series of blockades at the behest of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2013, leaving those living there without food or basic amenities.
Though necessarily incomplete, Al-Khatib’s film presents a riveting 89-minute window into a particularly harrowing corner of the Syrian civil war, offering a devastating document of what deprivation can do to the human soul. Cutting off all roads in and out of Yarmouk, and consequently shelling food distribution locations, is a doubly cruel confluence of acts which effectively plots to let the sheer brutality of time wipe the camp’s residents out.
The situation soon becomes dire enough that, without rice, citizens resort to eating cacti. In one unforgettable image, a man painstakingly spoons the smallest droplet of soupy liquid out of a glass. The situation is naturally even more dire for the many, many children glimpsed around the camp; parents face a daily struggling to secure basic food for their offspring, leading to one gaunt infant, Israa, perishing a few scenes after we’re introduced to her.
Even when food is available, the mad rush for a watery spiced broth is deeply disconcerting, one gentleman having his portion poured directly into a flimsy plastic bag of all things. Given the possibility that an aid drop might in fact be a barrel bomb attack, though, the euphoria at even rudimentary sustenance is totally understandable.
This is without even getting into wider issues like healthcare; the director’s own mother, Umm Mahmoud, does the rounds as a nurse, using largely her own knowhow to treat patients as best possible.
Abject human desperation is on display throughout, yet never in a way that Al-Khatib’s film descends into misery porn, perhaps in part because his own lived-in perspective is so ingrained in the gaze. Angry citizens protest in the streets with the bodies of those who’ve recently starved to death; a man shouts, “We want to live. We were born to live!”; others are so hungry that they heartbreakingly beg to be annihilated by a missile strike.
Imagery such as this forces audiences to consider not only their own comfort but perhaps their own ignorance of the situation. Many subjects, most of whom are left unnamed, decry the lack of international pressure applied to the Syrian government, begging the United Nations to intervene or the Red Cross to somehow deliver aid. Eventually an attempt is made by the residents to break the blockade down, which is predictably met with a hail of gunfire.
Despite the grim realities of the footage, what perhaps most differentiates Al-Khatib’s film from similarly-themed docs is its unexpected deference towards poetry, the director’s own lyrical, thoughtful narration lending added spiritual context to the visuals. It’s hardly a necessary accompaniment but absolutely works, describing the powerless slow death of starvation and how the siege comes to institutionalise those trapped within it, who can’t even conceive of what life might be like on the other side.
Betwixt the devastation are also a plethora of slightly less-bleak human moments; residents coming together to tidy up the wake of a missile barrage; a man playing the piano in the ashen streets; a young boy sticking his tongue out at the camera; another child expressing a joy and yearning for life no matter that the bombings have become to them a mere daily inconvenience.
Hearing one especially insightful child, Tasnim, comment that the children she knows have already “grown old and exhausted” is undeniably painful, but the strength of spirit on display offers at least a sliver of hope for their future.
The abundance of memorably impactful imagery – right from its opening scene, where Yarmouk’s previously bustling square fades into its later barren roadblocked state – speaks to the intimacy with which the film has been assembled. Al-Khatib roves from person to person, sight to sight, with an empathetic curiosity, and a clear desire to have their stories told to the world. Fittingly, it all wraps up with a closing visual of a man tearfully singing while holding the remains of a bombshell, before a title card elliptically leaves us to ponder what became of everyone featured within.
Little Palestine is a defiant scream into the mediated void, as filmmaker Abdallah Al-Khatib begs audiences to consider their own complicit place in an international community that has categorically failed to act.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.