Cannes 2021. Abdallah Al Khatib: Yarmouk’s story is also mine

Interview by Michaël Melinard, translation by Naji Shams

What does the presence of the names of all those who died during the siege of Yarmouk mean during the end credits?

Abdallah Al Khatib

These people have stories and died because of the siege. They are not just numbers. I wanted us to remember them. I can’t ask people to remember Yarmouk if I don’t name the people.

What was your background before this film?

Abdallah Al Khatib

Before the war in Syria, I worked with Unrwa and the United Nations. I studied social science but the war prevented me from graduating. I then worked in humanitarian and social work.

What did you want to do with these images?

Abdallah Al Khatib

We Palestinians have often been besieged and at war. These conflicts have not always been documented. During the siege, I felt a responsibility. I wanted to record what was going on. On social media, I had the impression that we were trying to inspire pity. We can show what is happening by preserving the dignity of those under siege.

You film the camp but especially the inhabitants. How did they react to your camera?

Abdallah Al Khatib

I am a son of Yarmouk. Everyone knows me. I can’t come from outside to make a film. I was under siege with the inhabitants. I was filming friends, family, old classmates. They trusted me and knew I was not going to use them in a degrading way. They were happy that I filmed them.

Why did the film, shot between 2011 and 2015, take so long to be born?

Abdallah Al Khatib

During the war, I didn’t have the technical and professional resources to work on a film. I left Yarmouk in 2018 and arrived in Germany in 2019. It was very difficult to work on the film after leaving the camp. In the picture, it was my family, my friends. It is not important to me whether the film is released in 2015 or 2020. It does not change the fate of the inhabitants of Yarmouk. The real purpose of the film is to remember the victims of the siege.

What are you going to do with the remaining rushes?

Abdallah Al Khatib

The film is 90 minutes long and I have 500 hours of rushes. I want to make other films of it.

What happened to Yarmouk’s camp?

Abdallah Al Khatib

2015, the Islamic state entered the region. I went to a village south of Damascus. In 2018, the Syrian regime issued an ultimatum: “you are with or against us”. I was forced to go to northern Syria near the Turkish border. Today, there are very few people left in Yarmouk. 80% of the camp was destroyed.

Beyond the memorial aspect, what can your testimony bring?

Abdallah Al Khatib

With my film, I want to shed light on all the seats in the world. A siege is an even harsher and cruel weapon than bombardment. They are not often talked about, but they must be considered as crimes against humanity.

Even though horrible things happen in the film, there is also solidarity and dignity. What are they talking about?

Abdallah Al Khatib

When we think of war, we always show people who are sad, in tears. I wanted to show that these people had, despite what was happening, the energy to resist.

Is this the reason for your presence in the image?

Abdallah Al Khatib

On the contrary, I did not want to appear. But in this way I show that the director of the film is also a victim of the siege. Images of my mother and her work with the elderly linked the present to the past. The images of the children with me represent the link between the present and the future. This film is Yarmouk’s story but also mine. I didn’t want to speak on behalf of Yarmouk but on my own behalf.

How much of a survivor film too?

Abdallah Al Khatib

(It shows Naji Shams, his translator). I filmed it when she was little and today she translates my words. This is the best proof.

What does a selection at Cannes represent?

Abdallah Al Khatib

I can see the contradiction between the presence of the film here and its content. But I am very happy and very proud to be at ACID. I can be myself. The screening of the film in Cannes will allow it to gain notoriety and to be more widely distributed. I especially hope that it will allow us to talk about the siege.

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