Little Palestine (Diary Of A Siege)

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Little Palestine (Diary Of A Siege)
"Despite its bleakness, Al-Khatib also captures the spirit of the older Palestinians - already exiled once and refusing to simply move on again - and the resourcefulness of the children." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

At the time of writing, the ongoing conflict in Syria has recently notched up its deadly 11th year, with the UN estimating that well over 350,000 people have been killed. During that time, there has been a steady stream of documentaries outlining the brutal situation in the country but few have been as heartbreaking as this from Abdallah Al-Khatib - made all the more remarkable not only because it was shot from within the siege it documents but because Al-Khatib had never picked up a camera before.

He was one of the residents of the Yarmouk district of Damascus that, until 2018, housed the world's largest Palestinian refuge camp, which, before the conflict, amounted to about 150,000 Palestinians. Then, in 2013, Bashar al-Asad's regime decided the area was a hotbed of radicals and put it under complete siege - a move that would lead to gradual starvation of the populace, with this film dedicated to the 181 who died as a direct result.

Al-Khatib - who began filming in 2011 - captures everyday life in the area as the situation gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, deteriorates. Key to his footage is film of his mum Umm Mahmoud, who became a nurse during the siege, and who we see trying to help the elderly and frail, and the many children, who Al-Khatib captures as they go about their business, or 'interviews' about their opinions. There are the small pleasures of the red balloons his mum dishes out to the neighbourhood kids, or their simple solutions to the problems - "Just open the roads!" - but also the gut-wrenching sight of them slipping into listlessness due to a lack of food and being forced to forage for verbena among the weeds in an attempt to feed their families.

Al-Khatib punctuates his film with personal ruminations on the impact of the siege tactic on a populace that have a melancholic and poetic sweep. Noting that, "Time stopped beyond the roadblock", he considers the way people used the "ritual of walking" to give themselves a sense of freedom, his occasional voice-over becoming grimmer in tone but no less philosophical as the months wear on and he considers the nature of "collective pain" and the myriad ways the siege changes people.

Like Waad al-Kateab's For Sama, this is a tough watch made all the more so by the fact it is so intimate and personal. Al-Khatib doesn't document the bloody brutality of shelling but rather the slow squeeze of resources that kills the populace little by little. Despite its bleakness, Al-Khatib also captures the spirit of the older Palestinians - already exiled once and refusing to simply move on again - and the resourcefulness of the children. It is impressively edited by Qutaiba Barhamji so that Al-Khatib's thoughts aid rather than distract from the rhythms of the film.

As you watch and consider the lack of humanitarian aid the residents received, you are likely to find yourself questioning why the international community is so weak in the face of this barbarity - no wonder Al-Khatib's film opens with the director, who worked for the United Nations Relief Works Agency in youth development and support (which explains his rapport with the children in the film) announcing he is "defecting" from it. The director proves a strong presence in front of the camera as well as behind it, whether he's raising morale through chants or having a laugh with the children, all demonstrating the power of a resilience that refuses to be starved out of existence. A difficult but essential watch.

Reviewed on: 01 May 2022
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Documentary about the siege at Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria.

Director: Abdallah Al-Khatib

Writer: Abdallah Al-Khatib

Year: 2021

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Lebanon, Qatar, France

Festivals:

London 2021

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If you like this, try:

For Sama
Return To Homs