Cannes Film Festival
Following the Syrian Revolution, Bashar Al-Assad's regime besieges the district of Yarmouk (Damascus), the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world. Yarmouk then finds itself cut off from the rest of the world, and the director records the daily deprivations while celebrating the courage of the inhabitants.
Hi Abdullah, thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?
When Covid times started it wasn't too strange for me as I hadn't been in Europe for too long by that time and hence I tried to consider it to be an extension of my life of the last 8-9 years during the war in Syria. So I guess I didn't have as many problems adapting to the new situation as many people in Europe had. People here have a certain lifestyle, being able to travel for vacations, going to the movies or theatre. And then suddenly all of this stops. But of course, it had an impact on the timing of the movie, we had offered to postpone our working sessions as we couldn't travel to each other to work on the movie. I had to work on the voice of the movie from home as we couldn't use the studio due to Corona. So technically it really had an effect, but personally, it didn't have such a big effect on me.
Have you been inspired to take on any new creative opportunities?
I have an idea in mind that relies on the visual archive from Yarmouk. I want to combine it with filming in Germany and France. I want to tell the story of the children that grew up in Yarmouk during the siege and then left for Europe. How did the war and the siege affect their childhood, how are their lives developing? But of course, now, Little Palestine needs my time and care to be shown and discussed in the world.
Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) won the Interreligious Award at Visions du Réel Festival International de Cinema Nyon in 2021, what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your film?
I was very happy to receive this award for two reasons. Firstly, all the awards that Little Palestine gets, is an appreciation of the collective work we all did when working on this project. So I don't perceive it to be an appreciation for myself. Secondly, I think it's a recognition of what happened in Yarmouk, the massacres that were committed by the Syrian regime against its inhabitants.
Congratulations on Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) being part of L’Acid 2021, what does it mean to you to have your film part of this year's festival?
That is a very big opportunity and any director dreams of this and especially as this is my first documentary film. At the same time, this is such a big chance for the story of Yarmouk to get out to people. It's very important that this film gets the chance to be shown in front of many different audiences and ACID gives this opportunity. The main goal of the film is to tell the story of Yarmouk and make people think about their role in a globalized world in which crimes like starvation and sieges happen in such a systematic manner as in Syria.
"I don't think I am the right person to distribute advice here for the mentioned reasons, but my small experience taught me that everyone has the right to make a film documentary."
Can you tell me how Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) came about?
The idea came to life during my displacement from Southern Damascus to Northern Syria, while being in one of the busses. The main idea was to make a film about the siege of Yarmouk. It was not totally clear what would be the story or the personalities exactly as we were dealing with a huge amount of archival material. This was not an easy task. We wrote the first scenario, but the film we made is 50% different than our initial scenario. During the course of the film making, we faced many problems, because of the archival material. We also had to consider some political issues and the political message of the film, and at the same time that some of the people filmed in the archives are still in Syria and that such a film could put their lives in danger. This really played the main role in the decision of which scenes and which material to use in the film and which to leave out.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
This is a really difficult question to answer. Almost all of the scenes were hard to film and each scene bears its hardship in itself. The scene with Tasneem at the end of the movie and the way she talks really affected me; the scene when the children talk about their dreams is also so hard. Hence I cannot say which scene is harder than another.
When working on a film like this how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
Very special in this film is the very diverse team. A Syrian producer that lives in Beirut, a French producer, me my self Palestinian- Syrian, a Syrian-French editor, the distributer is Swiss, so I guess we are quite international. This kind of diversity is very important for any film, not only concerning the different nationalities of course, but also the different backgrounds. This really helps to develop the film in the best way as it helps to see different standpoints from different angles. This is really one of the strong points of the film and this really helped me to develop the film in the best way, as I learned to understand the film from different gazes and discourses.
As a writer/director did you allow yourself much flexibility on this project or do you like to stick to what you had written?
One of the hardest points for me was the voice over. I had decided from the very beginning that I wanted to use the 40 rules of siege, which is the text I wrote during the siege of Yarmouk. The text is original and mirrors one of the faces of the siege which is not mirrored on camera. I had the feeling that the filmed material and the text of the 40 rules of siege would be a very good combination. I was flexible enough to change some of the rules according to the scenes I was putting together. I had to shorten some as they were too long. I realised that the 40 rules of the film differ from the 40 rules of the written text, but this is fine with me and I plan on publishing the text of all of the 40 rules soon.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Before Little Palestine, I didn't have any passion for this realm or any relation to the cinema. In Syria, I probably went twice to the cinema, and those were quite small ones with no atmosphere. I didn't really have the chance “to care” about cinema because our lives and the circumstances didn't really allow that. I can say that through Little Palestine I now really care and developed the passion you ask about and want to continue to work in this path while also continuing working in writing poetry and political analyses. I think that the cinema is a good tool for change and for expression. Especially for our societies that suffer from continuous crises, I am convinced that the cinema is an important tool to shed light on our causes.
Due to the personal nature of Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) did you have any apprehensions about making this documentary?
I had a lot of fears making this film, first of all, because I doubted my ability to make a documentary film that is able to tell what happened in Yarmouk as I didn't have the professional training for making a film. I was always doubting my own decisions, whether I chose the right scenes, does the scenario make sense, the narrative lines? But as I said, the different personalities in the team really helped to bring along this movie. Secondly, I was anxious to work with the material: how can I make a film that preserves people's dignity and not causing any damage? How can I make sure that people who watch the movie don't film pity? How can I make a film that is first of all acceptable amongst the people who lived the siege themselves? So I had these two anxieties from the beginning: the technical and the one from the “main audience” which are the people who lived this experience with me, and how they would see the film.
What have been the best tips or advice you would offer someone thinking about making their own documentary?
I don't think I am the right person to distribute advice here for the mentioned reasons, but my small experience taught me that everyone has the right to make a film documentary. There are no conditions and no rules, you might hear “you need to do this and that…”, but if you want to make a film, throw all these conditions on the side, take up a camera and film what you see and make your own film. What matters, in the end, is your opinion and your view on the material, do you identify with the material? This is the most important. For some objective advice, you probably need to go to film school.
And finally, what do you want audiences will take away from Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege)?
I don't want to sound rude, but for me, it's important that the audience that sees this film feels shame. They need to feel that all of us have a responsibility towards what happened in Yarmouk, which still happens in Syria, Yemen and other war-torn countries. It's important to understand that our geographic position does not exempt us from responsibility as these wars are an extension of colonial policies and capitalist interest and a disinterest in the democratic self-determination of the people in the region. We all bear the responsibility. Feeling pity means to give up on the responsibility, feeling shame means to realize it and process it.