Interview with Abdallah Al-Khatib, director of 'Little Palestine (Diary of a siege)'
Abdallah Al-Khatib was invited at the Halaqat Opening Festival on 7 December 2021 to present his documentary film 'Little Palestine (Diary of a siege)'. We met him afterwards to discuss about his film, his views on filmmaking and the role of cinema in the cultural relations between Europe and the Arab world.
By Dounya Hallaq
1. How was the film Little Palestine, (Diary of a Siege) received in the Arab world?
In the Arab world, we have participated in three main festivals: Carthage in Tunisia, Ayyam Filastine in Palestine and Ajyal Film Festival in Qatar. We received several prizes at these three festivals. The public reception was also very good. Lots of discussions and question and answer sessions took place following the screenings were organised. In Tunisia, for example, the question of the Syrian Revolution is often frowned upon or misunderstood. And yet even there, no one questioned the reality of these sources and what is shown in the film.
2. What about the people of Yarmouk?
It depends. Some of them were disappointed because they thought that I hadn’t shown everything. I tried to concentrate as much as possible on this experience, but in the end, a documentary only represents the point of view of the director. Little Palestine represents what I wanted to show. On the other hand, I tried to have the film feature as many inhabitants as possible. I was in constant dialogue and debate with the people in the camp.
It was also broadcast in Northern Syria, in the regions that are not under Assad’s control. It was a very special experience. There were discussions after the screening, and I think that the people appreciated the film.
Today, I have two films to come on the Yarmouk camp. In the Middle East, we all have many stories to tell. There is no need to search, every detail of everyday life tells something. For example, yesterday at 10 p.m., I had an idea. I called my cousin and asked him to film the small room on the upper terrace. It's tiny, but this is where we hold all the Revolution meetings. I wanted to make a short film about this room. I mean that there are always ideas around us. We don't have to look very far. The same goes for fiction: we only need to look around to see a lot of inspiring elements. The question that remains is: how do you shape it? And the more the directors and editors are convinced by your story, the better it is shaped.
3. How was the film received in Europe?
It depends on the places. It has been shown in several festivals. In general, the reception was very good in France. To me, the French public is the most well-informed about the situation of Palestinians in Syria. This is not the case in other countries. It was broadcast for example in Hamburg. It was also very well received but people did not quite understand what was going on in Yarmouk. No one really knew there was a siege.
I was very satisfied by the projection at Bozar. The reception was very positive, there were a lot of people, especially during the Q&A. One could observe through the questions that people followed the film and the discussion. It was interesting to hear Arabs, Belgians, people from everywhere asking questions and giving their points of view. I consider this to be exceptional and that I was very lucky, especially in this period when people need to clear their minds and do not go to the cinema to see films such as mine.
4. It is interesting that in the Q&A, a lot of questions were asked about Palestine and few about Syria.
In fact, everything is linked. As Palestinians, we are paying twice the price. Firstly, because we left our land, and have been a society scattered throughout the region since 1948. Secondly, because this same region is unstable and has experienced many conflicts. The situation in Yarmouk is that of the Palestinians in Syria, but it is not disconnected from that in Syria. We see in the film that the Syrians also paid a price and lived in very harsh conditions.
5. The documentary genre has developed in recent years, especially in Syria. It includes more and more fictional or aesthetic elements. In your film, for example, we hear a lot of poetry, which is reminiscent of Mahmoud Darwish’s style.
The documentary genre has developed incredibly quickly in the last 20 years. Before there was only one way to make documentaries. Now we have plenty of tools: animation, voice over … It becomes more like cinema – that is to say, a film that people want to see, which is not too frozen.
To me, the most important part is the story. We must be able to serve it, because if the story you tell is good, it will make its way to the public, regardless of the image, the director… So, you start by saying: I want to tell this story in particular. But if in all your archives you are missing a very important scene for the story, you can use techniques to fill the gap: you use a drawing, for example. When I work on a film, I really work on material, I think about filling the gaps, the images that might be missing.
Concerning poetry, I read a lot of Mahmoud Darwish’s works. But I didn’t quote or use anything from him. For instance, he wrote State of Siege (about his experience of the siege of Ramallah in 2002), which I read before and after the movie to make sure that what I wrote didn’t look like it (this can happen when you know an author well). I tried to focus on the things Darwish didn't see. This is rule no. 40: all sieges are different. So Darwish saw things that I didn´t see and vice versa.
6. What difficulties did you face while making your documentary?
You never know how and when it's going to end. Characters always take you to places you never thought about. The characters change and they change the "scenario". Moreover, they are not professional actors. Sometimes they don't want to be filmed. So, you have to come back later. You think you're going to finish a movie in a year, and it might take a lot longer.
7. In your opinion, what is the role of cinema in cultural relations between the Arab world and Europe?
Let’s assume that not everyone has the patience to read UN reports and follow the news day by day. In reality, it is mostly the work of researchers and those interested in politics. Cinema is a tool to get the audience interested in these subjects in a simpler way. In Europe, cinema is part of culture. People have gone to the cinema since they were kids, they are used to these images. In Syria, it is quite different, but cinema allows us to have access to the European public.
It is important to remember that the goal is not to provoke solidarity. On the contrary! I always say to people: we don't need you to show solidarity with the inhabitants of Yarmouk. Anyways, it disappeared years ago. The most important point for me is responsibility. The goal is to remind Europe that it is historically responsible for the destruction of societies and states today and to give European audiences the tools to understand their historical role and responsibilities (through colonization for instance). Being a Palestinian in Syria, I hear a lot of people telling me “I don't know what's going on in this region”. I answer them: “Now that you've seen the film, you know. You can act”.
Let’s take the example of Yemen. When we talk about Yemen, the only things that come to our minds are war and famine. I am convinced that even in these conditions, there is a civilian population that is organised, that carries political messages. But we don't want to see it because if we see it, we will have a responsibility towards them! We must therefore break these clichés about war zones that lead us to feel powerless, and cinema helps in that. Cinema allows a better understanding of the life of a people, of a society. Cinema makes things more concrete, more tangible, more sensitive. It has a political role.
We also have problems with funding films in the region. Arab governments are generally dictatorial and will not give you money to make a film that shows reality and that thwarts their official rhetoric. Documentaries are thus the solution since they don't cost a lot.
Abdallah Al-Khatib was born in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Syria and lived there until his expulsion by Daesh (Arabic abbreviation for the Islamic State in Syria / the Levant) in 2015. During the siege of the camp by Syrian regime forces, he and his friends documented the daily life of its inhabitants.