A little over a year ago, Yarmouk was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world. A long-term siege by Syrian forces that killed 181 people, a brief ISIS reign, and a destructive bombing campaign by the Russian Federation later, Yarmouk has been almost completely battered and its inhabitants scattered across the world (or, for many, the next one). This real-time documentary witnesses some of the camp’s last moments of structured life.
I haven’t seen any of the Western produced, journalist-adjacent documentaries about the present Ukrainian conflict, but I suspect they have a doomsday gravitas to them—almost like propaganda to make the NATO-influenced world care. Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege is not made for the same audience, and it’s not made to make you care. It’s made for the besieged, for the Palestinians, for the Syrians in diaspora. Abdallah Al-Khatib, a first-time accidental filmmaker equipped with a sturdy hand-held consumer camera, records the Syrian siege, roadblock, and barrel bombing. In the final narrative monologue, Al-Khatib edifies the viewer that if the siege ends before they do, they should carry the lessons of besieged life with them because one day they will encounter an even bigger siege. Unfortunately, with the eventual destruction of Yarmouk, his instructions sound more like biblical prophecy: he’s a prophet not necessarily in terms of future prediction but as a charismatic figure that speaks truth to the moment. They do, in fact, face greater sieges: ISIS, Russian terror campaigns, and if they survive both, life in exile.
The people of Yarmouk still cling to the joy in life. “We are the people of Palestine,” one man tells Al-Khatib, “We still celebrate our joyous occasions, our children’s weddings.” His camera records these moments more often than the not-so-joyous ones. Whether it be his doctor-mother passing balloons to children and caring for the dying, the communal songs and dances of hundreds, walking in the morning and glimpsing the smiles of those who Death did not take the night before, or religion, the refugees of Yarmouk have many reasons to be resilient.
For our narrator-director, the raison d’etre is the camera: “Make a paper plane. Find meaning… Pick up a camera… find meaning,” his narrative poetry reads. In such moments of narration, had Al-Khatib been a little less eloquent (and his subject triter), the narration would sound a bit like Werner Herzog’s trappings. He’s a good poet though—one whose work I’d advocate supporting if he switches mediums—and his subject, a literal siege in the happening, demands such grand-poetic narrations in a way that Grizzly Man (2005) frankly doesn’t.
Little Palestine is also a testament to the power of digital cinema. I’m not sure this movie would have been possible without the ease, lightweightness, and non-invasiveness of the consumer camera. He records whenever he chooses and however he desires. On a few occasions, his subjects don’t even look up while they go on with their daily activities: picking weeds, cutting cacti, etc… I’m not even sure they knew he was recording.
In the film’s most startling moment, Al-Khatib and a friend are recording a protest against the barricade from the balcony of a tall building. Then, from an impossible to locate origin, what could only be a bullet hits the rail about two feet to the left of where the friend’s hand and camera were recording from—and the two flee the still immature battle scene as gunfire commences in the background. Viewed in isolation, any viewer would assume it was a staged shot for a found-footage thriller. It’s a tragic miracle they captured the shot, and a sobering reminder of how brave Al-Khatib has been in keeping his camera on in the middle of a siege whose ending he couldn’t be sure of.
“Film everything. Film!”
Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege
dir. Abdallah Al-Khatib
Available for virtual screening through the Boston Palestine Film Festival.