“Why do I want to leave? In Damascus, a soul is born serene and dies used up.” Ala’a, a young aspiring filmmaker, decries the lack of freedoms in Yarmouk camp, a neighborhood of Damascus, as he sits in contemplation in a sunlit room.
Ala’a is one of the five shebab (youth) that make up the The Shebabs of Yarmouk, a poignant new documentary by French director Axel Salvatori-Sinz.
Elegantly alternating between moments of intense conversation, poetic monologue, and subtle, symbolic observation and exploration, the film paints a beautiful portrait of a tight-knit group of third-generation Palestinian refugees inside Yarmouk camp. It delves deep into their identities, precariously situated between Palestine and Syria, in a place where citizenship is hard to find or define.
Prominent young theater actor Hassan Hassan, his fiancée Waed, and their friends Ala’a, Samer and Tasneem are the protagonists of the film. Shot over the course of three years, the film brings you affectingly close to the group as it approaches adulthood and negotiates difficult choices with grace and acuity.
Shebabs of Yarmouk takes on a melancholic aura when considering the current situation in Yarmouk. Finished in 2011, the film’s context is situated directly before conditions in the camp began to corrode drastically as conflicts between rebel and regime forces increased.
Today, the Syrian army controls the perimeter of the camp, allowing in only minute amounts of aid, a siege that has caused widespread hunger and dozens of deaths from starvation among the 18,000 or so residents remaining. Most of the 160,000 persons who lived in Yarmouk before the war have fled. The situation has gotten progressively worse since armed opposition groups entered the camp in December 2012 and the Syrian army began the siege. Fighting has left much of the camp in ruins.
In the midst of this, the young actor Hassan Hassan was recently reported killed, the victim of torture inside a Syrian regime prison.
Hassan Hassan stands out in the film, not only for his charisma and energy, but for his humbling commitment to Yarmouk camp itself, where he saw opportunity for growth and creativity. Early in the film, he admits, “I love the camp. I love its details … If I could put up but one theater play a year, and it is staged only in the camp, I’ll be satisfied and happy.”
Still a Palestinian, Hassan does not forget his right of return and compensation for all that his grandparents lost in the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing undertaken by Zionist forces shortly after the couple’s marriage in 1948.
We witness Hassan’s charming humor as he states, “They had a new house, brand new pots and pans. Everything was new, even the frying pan for eggs. They even had four pounds of laban (yogurt) in the fridge … Motherfuckers, I need this laban back.”
To live, work or marry in Yarmouk, young men are required to serve in the military, a commitment that Hassan concedes to so he can make a life there. Over the span of the film, we see his hair shaved off for draft, grow out and be cut again multiple times.
Hassan’s peers relate to his connection to the camp, but are less willing to accept a life in it. “Up to now, I still haven’t got a passport but I am expected to do military service,” Ala’a explains. “It is called the Palestinian Liberation Army, though it doesn’t liberate anything. It’s directly accountable to the Syrian government. Humanness is desperately missing in this army.”
Beyond these political expositions, much of the film’s beauty lies in its encapsulation of the shebab’s more personal and intimate narratives.
Hassan and Waed lovingly argue over their future and finances. Waed and Tasneem discuss their hesitancy to raise families in their current environment, asking, “Will we forever have to be the camp’s children? Won’t we ever become a country’s children?”
In a breathtaking five-minute candid single take, Ala’a describes his relationship with a woman he dated who received an abortion. He laughs and cries as classical music playing in the background swells around him. Noticing the camera, he asks “It’s recording?” before quietly telling the viewers in English, “When you lose the meaning, you lose everything.”
Interspersed in the film are striking shots that reveal the details of the camp itself. Views of the clustered, layered buildings and narrow streets reveal its natural flow.
The youth cough and laugh while they beat dust out of a rug or sit and converse on rooftops covered in broken appliances, satellite dishes, tangled wires and poles.
Images of escape and return, entrapment and wonder recur. A train departing, birds circling the stacked rooftops, and open windows revealing the camp behind them appear as motifs throughout the film.
Coupled with Palestinian singer Reem Kelani’s beautifully composed score, or often accompanied by the camp’s adhan (call to prayer), these interludes make a strong impact. They illustrate the subtle and precarious contradictions of the shebab and the camp itself, described by Samer as the “non-place settled inside [them].”
At the end of the film, the shebab allude to repercussions felt in the camp as the popular uprisings began. Since that time, it has become a site of intense conflict, destruction and siege.
In a statement to The Electronic Intifada, director Axel Salvatori-Sinz explained that after the culmination of the film, all of the shebab fled Yarmouk except Hassan and Waed.
“It was an act of resistance,” the director said. “The camp was [Hassan’s] place and it was not possible for him to leave the camp behind him.”
Eventually, conditions became unbearable. “The Syrian regime decided to eradicate Yarmouk camp, stopping the provision of food … Hassan and Waed decided to try to escape.”
With exits of the camp blocked by Syrian forces, Hassan attempted a bribe but was arrested. Late last year, Hassan’s family was notified of his death inside prison, which many have alleged was a result of torture.
As much as a portrait of a place and a generation, Shebabs of Yarmouk now acts as a solemn celebration of Hassan Hassan, who never wavered in his commitment to Yarmouk as a place of livelihood, creative opportunity and beauty. He longed for a homeland, but resolved that, “Palestine is the camp, and the camp is a piece of Palestine,” and so he strove to create an ideal within it.
The spirit and beauty that he found is realized in The Shebabs of Yarmouk. As thousands still languish in the camp, we cannot — for Hassan’s sake — let Yarmouk be forgotten.
Daryl Meador is a graduate student studying media at The New School, who recently lived and volunteered in Nablus. Follow her on Twitter @yalladaryl.