Best of Doc #4 review: Little Palestine (Abdallah Al-Khatib)

“The last sequence of his film aims for a similar horizon: to show that no matter the hardships, hope, resilience and life will continue to bud in Palestine and in Palestinian camps.”

Little Palestine is the filmed testimony, told in the first person, of the harrowing ordeal endured by the inhabitants of the Yarmouk camp – a district of the Syrian capital Damascus populated by Palestinians – in the aftermath of the 2011 Syrian Revolution. Following the first clashes between rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s army, the latter besieged Yarmouk for several months in the harshest way possible, blocking medicinal supplies, food, and other necessities from entering the place, condemning its civilian population to a prolonged death. Abdallah Al-Khatib, the director of Little Palestine, was among them, together with his mother, a nurse. As she does her best to tend to the people around her with virtually nothing, so does he to document their life of misery.

The groups of people that mother and son look after the most are the most vulnerable: children and grandparents. Still, even their strongest efforts cannot prevent the inevitable. Twice Al-Khatib films individuals on the brink of dying, an infant suffering from malnutrition and an old woman lacking the necessary treatment. In both cases we learn a few scenes later that they passed away, their demise having occurred in a cut in the edit which strongly combines the unbearable pain of grief and the decency of leaving the darkest horror off-screen.

Decency and dignity are all that is left to the people of Yarmouk in the face of the slow death by hunger, a fate so dire that it drives them to favor the sudden death by bombing. Indeed there is no shortage of bombs and shells thrown at Yarmouk, as opposed to the food and medicine situation. Every other scene of Little Palestine is disrupted by such a bombing, whether it is an airstrike on a residential building or randomly fired shots almost smashing his camera as Al-Khatib films a desperate attempt by the Palestinians to breach the siege. In the meantime, between these sudden bursts of violence, the bleakness of the day-to-day survival inside Yarmouk, illustrated on screen by the dominant color grey brought by the rubble and the ashes, is as painful to witness.

At the time of the film (it has been emptied since by the bombings, the fighting and the hunger), Yarmouk was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world, as well as one of the oldest – going back as far as the 1950s. Hence, the title chosen by Al-Khatib acts as a reminder that what we see in Yarmouk, even if Yarmouk does not exist anymore, reflects what happens in Palestine to this day. The last sequence of his film, a long chat with a little girl, aims for a similar horizon: to show that no matter the hardships, hope, resilience and life will continue to bud in Palestine and in Palestinian camps, just like the weeds this girl and the other youngsters pick up to have something to eat.