Abdallah Al-Khatib’s extraordinary documentary captures daily life in the largest Palestinian refugee camp.
Yarmouk is the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, formed after Palestinians were ousted from their homeland in 1948. Abdallah Al-Khatib was born there. In 2014, with the Bashar al-Assad-led regime laying siege to Yarmouk, he picked up a camera – one that belonged to his murdered friend Hassan – and documented, diary-style, the impact of the siege on the people living there.
The first person we meet is his mother Umm Mahmoud, a nurse to the elderly, doing the rounds with her patients. Her brisk tenderness with these delicate humans establishes a sense of communal spirit that becomes a vital source of levity as the scenes documented become increasingly harrowing. There are adorable children galore in Yarmouk.
Small girls reveal, in between shy giggles, that they are drawing on the walls so that the world will see and help them. People gather frequently for rallies in the dusty streets, chanting and waving Palestinian flags. It’s a way to foster solidarity as individual survival becomes a constant pressure.
Death by starvation sneaks into the picture, slowly but surely, each lost soul marked by a march and the collective cry that forms both a eulogy and an accusation, “I’m Case 80, I died of hunger in the siege of Yarmouk” rings out a voice as a body wrapped in a white sheet is carried through the streets. Al-Khatib films to capture stark reality, but he is not sordid or punishing in what he shows, affording privacy to his neighbours by never showing the moment of death.
His voiceover knits together the scenes. His words are elegant, absorbing and damning, with a perspective that folds in both psychological and physical survival. He talks about the desperate things people do, like selling children’s milk, but also the way they keep coming together to mourn as one. “Under siege, collective pain is a quality and a path to survival,” he says. His intimacy with his subjects leads to interviews with people in dire straits that do not feel exploitative.
An old man, face hollowed to the bone, shows the camera his survival kit: a small pan, oil and spices. He heats water in the oil and adds spices in order to eat. Elsewhere pieces of cactus are carved up to boil into soup and a plucky little girl picks grass for her family. Her name is Tasnim and she is sanguine about the situation, not flinching at the sounds of mortar exploding nearby.
The reason that people are dying of hunger is because food is being blocked at the checkpoint. A plan to charge at the checkpoint forms as days merge into each other. There is little to do – apart from survive – in what increasingly looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland as a result of shelling. People exchange information, share rumours of food and collectively mourn “martyrs”. The importance of faith as a means of finding dignity within great suffering is apparent as in the collective chant goes, “God is greater than they are.”
It is desperately moving to behold not just the bodies but the souls of these besieged Palestinianians, driven from one home, only to be bombed out of existence in what was supposed to be a place of refuge. Indeed one of the hopes that Al-Khatib has in releasing the film is that the siege of Yarmoulk will be classified as a war crime. The miracle of what would seem to be irrefutable evidence of war crimes is that it is not a monotonous litany of misery. Indeed, it has more tonal variance than many movies with lighter set-ups.
There is something about Al-Khatib and the people of Yarmouk that transmutes the very best as well as the very worst aspects of humanity. In one scene, deep into the siege, he asks a gaggle of young children what they dream about. One says, “the road opening up”. One says “a chicken sandwich”. One says, “hearing my grandmother eat bread’. It is among the most stirring things I’ve ever seen: a nurturing desire in one so young and so under duress.
Published 15 Jul 2021
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