The Shebab of Yarmouk is the first documentary by young French filmmaker Axel Salvatori-Sniz. The footage of the film was shot in the Camp of Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus from October 2009 to December 2011.
Being screened as part of Hybrid Reels programme on Revisiting Documentary, the film gives a direct look into the realities of the refugee camp in Syria, and how it formulates the minds of its third generation of inhabitants, shapes their identities and perspectives on life.
Yarmouk Camp was set up in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war as Israel continues to refuse the Palestinians’ right to return to their land and property. While Syria has 12 refugee camps holding around 560,000 registered Palestinians, the camp of Yarmouk is considered the biggest as it accommodated around 60,000 before 2011.
Violent conflicts left the camp in ruins and estimates are that the number of refugees dropped to between 18,000 and 6,000. According to UNRWA and Amnesty International, the camp currently suffers from a lack of medical facilities, electricity and water supplies and all sorts of aid.
The Shebab of Yarmouk is situated in the context directly before conditions in the camp drastically turned violent between different Islamist militia groups and the regime forces.
The film opens with the powerful song 'Here is Yarmouk' sung by the Palestinian British singer Reem Kilani, and written by the Palestinian poet and son of Yarmouk, Iyad Hayatleh.
From this moment, the viewer enters the realities of the camp and its youth, the shebab.
The film relates the story of five young men and women, Hassan, Alaa, Samer, Tanseem and Waed. They were born and raised in the Camp of Yarmouk, where they are stuck between their identity as third generation Palestinians, “who love a country they did not know and never saw,” as one of the film characters puts it, and their situation as refugees, who are denied citizenship.
Though every one of them has an individual story, they all feel trapped and disenchanted with their reality as they develop ambiguous feelings towards their camp, with their emotions shifting between love and hate, belonging and lack of it, or both sides of the spectrum.
“It is a camp that everyone pretends is a town. It is an ugly reality that everyone tries to beautify," one character explains.
The confusion is also apparent in the characters' identity crisis reconfirmed with a poignant question: “Are we always going to be a camp’s children not a country’s children?”
The characters' internal dilemmas are only emphasised by the fact that the camp is also a trap that everyone tries to get out of. Filled with blocks of concrete, decaying buildings, garbage everywhere, the camp becomes like a big prison, where the only space might be found is on the roof, “closer to the sky.” Yet all they know is that “Palestine is the camp and the camp is a piece of Palestine.”
In an eye opening statement, a sixty year old man relates that now Palestine is lost in the camp while in the seventies “you would smell Palestine, smell revolution, you would feel you are a Palestinian. Now it is all lost. Nothing reminds you of Palestine any more.”
In their search to find their place in the world, travelling to Europe becomes an overpowering desire, in the hope of establishing a new life, a meaning, maybe starting a family where their children never have to live like their parents.
This dream seems impossible when getting a visa becomes an endless struggle that they try to manipulate. Travelling birds, a repetitive motive, contrary to humans can travel across borders with no check points, no visas or passports. Those scenes increase the sense of suffocation, helplessness and sense of imprisonment.
The Shebab of Yarmouk is about a generation lost between their longing for a “lost country” that they realise they will never see and between their situation as refugees, always to be, even if you are lucky enough to leave for Europe. This sense of lost identities is physically accelerated in a camp that is also trapped between militias and the army with no visible way out.
The Shebab of Yarmouk was selected at more than 70 international festivals and has won several awards: Regard Neuf for Best First Film at Visions du réel 2013 and the RTP Award for Best Researche Film at Doclisboa 2013.
Born in 1982 in Lyon, France, Salvatori-Sniz studied Arab-Muslim societies as well as filmmaking, and directed several commissioned films for the French Embassy while in Salvador.
Thursday 21 May, 7.30pm
Zawya, Odeon Cinema, 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown, Cairo