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Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege)

Director: Abdallah Al-Khatib (Lebanon, France, Qatar). Year of Release: 2021

An angry man announces that he is defecting from the UN. Abdallah Al-Khatib shows an ID card to the camera, which contains his picture and says he works for the UNRWA. This controlled outburst at the beginning of the film is important to give us some political orientation. Most of the misery that we see in Little Palestine is a direct result of the brutal repression by Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian régime. But no-one – not the EU, the UN or various aid organisations – come out with much glory.

In 2013, as part of his bloody counter-revolution, Assad imposed a blockade on the Yarmouk refugee camp, home of one of the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the world. No-one was allowed to go in our out of the camp. More importantly, no thing was allowed to enter, including food. Of the 181 people who died during the siege, many died from unavoidable starvation.

Directer Al-Khatib grew up in Yarmouk, and this film is assembled from footage that he took during the siege. It shows both defiance and a sense of hopelessness, starting early on with a militant demonstration accompanying 9 corpses in white shrouds. As the film continues, and there is no sense of the siege lifting, the hopelessness increases. After a regular chant “Palestinians, Syrians, united together”, someone wryly comments “well, we were united until they started shooting us.”

An early scene shows a gaggle of kids chanting “The people demand that the road be opened”, evoking the slogan from the Arab Spring “The people demand the fall of the régime”. This chant soon becomes “The people demand eggs and milk”. The film contains a lot of footage of kids, who use playful humour like this as a way of coping with an almost impossibly grim everyday reality. How can a child have a normal life when all the buildings in town have been bombed out?

A camera is set up in the middle of the street, and kids come up, sometimes curiously, sometimes with an arrogant swagger. They are asked what they dream of. Most of them dream of some sort of food – either sugary treats or basic staples. Others dream of friends who have escaped the camp, or died. Yet more dream that their father or brother will return from the dead. It is all the more tragic that most of these statements are delivered through a cheeky grin.

The kids are not the only ones thinking of food. An old man explains how he survives by begging, borrowing and stealing herbs, and boiling them in water to make a basic soup. A group of helpers set up a stove to make communal bowls of some sort of pasta. They add a tomato-ey sauce which looks like blood. Villagers line up with whichever receptacles they can find to finally take home some food. One obviously doesn’t have any pots so brings a plastic carrier bag.

At one stage, an aid convoy arrives at the edge of town and is allowed to distribute a little food to the massive queues which immediately form. One woman moans that she’d been queueing since early morning, but the only way that you can get this food aid is if you know someone. The aid worker organising the distribution looks on helplessly. She knows that it’s a very rare occasion that they can get any food to anyone in the camp.

One old woman interviewed says they just need to break down the roadblocks sealing them off the rest of the world. If they die, they die (we see a lot of this sort of fatalism in the film). We switch to footage of villagers charging one of the checkpoint barriers, shouting “We won’t die without dignity”. More and more people join the charge, some reluctantly, others with determination. They are allowed to progress maybe 100 metres before they are mowed down by gunfire.

There are also lighter moments. A kid, carried by his parent, cheekily sticks his tongue out at the camera. A group of people put a piano and chair onto a contraption on wheels and take it into the street. Someone starts playing and everyone starts singing rebellious songs. A woman (who turns out to be Al-Khatib’s saintly mother) blows up red balloons and gives them to the local kids, encouraging them to send them up into the sky.

The longest interview is with a girl who must be about 6. Throughout the interview she is cutting grass, so that her family has a next meal. Is it tasty? No, but we need to eat something. Isn’t it poisonous? Only the ones which bear fruit. While the interview is going on, a Syrian plane drops a barrel bomb. Is she scared? No, this happens all the time.

There is no dramatic arc in Little Palestine – how could there be? Things don’t improve, people don’t develop. What we do have is a poetic narrative from Al-Khatib, whose metaphors fit the prevailing concerns: “When the most obvious answers to simple questions are as rare as a lump of sugar, when you feel like your existence in the universe doesn’t measure up to a sesame seed pull yourself together, don’t surrender. Open your eyes and scream: I will defeat this siege.”

The film ends with on older man singing the song “Clementine”, who’s lyrics he has amended to “Palestine”. He explains that his misfortunes have only strengthened his ties with his homeland – be that Palestine itself, or Little Palestine in Yarmouk. The end credits tell us that the siege was lifted when IS troops invaded Yarmouk- Since then, the inhabitants have been equally mistreated by Islamists, Assad and the US. This film, at least, gives them a voice which deserves to be heard.

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