Chronicling the day-to-day worries, laughter, struggles and friendship between a close group of friends living in the Syrian Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, “The Shebabs of Yarmouk” provides a candid look into the life of a refugee. Completed in 2011, the film documents the camp as it was before the current rise in conflict in Syria, focusing not on the factual reasons behind the camp’s existence or how external conflicts affect it, but on how these conditions emotionally touch those growing up within the camp’s walls. To these young people, Yarmouk is both their beloved home and a symbol of their repression, something to be escaped from but also missed deeply, with these conflicting reactions reaching into every corner of their daily lives.
The film is told in a mixture of straightforward conversation and poetic cataloguing of the camp. In many instances, the camera is shaky, the audio distant and the lighting harsh. The friends, all part of a group they dubbed “Les Shebabs” as teenagers, sit around on cushions and mattresses, smoking and discussing their plans for getting passports to leave for European countries, current love affairs or music they are interested in. It is a strange mix of scripted dialogue and shaky cinematography — both things that would normally point toward a film’s failure. But here, in Yarmouk, this combination pulls its audience in without any false pretense. We are given a glimpse into the filmmaking process of these young people attempting to document their liminal lives, and the final product succeeds for it.
This amateur honesty that roots the friends’ lives in reality is augmented through the film’s focus on dialogue as opposed to action. Rarely do we witness any active moments of the group’s lives; while they search for ways out of the country, fall in love, attend work and school, or complete their compulsory military service, the camera is markedly absent. Only later, while reconvening at the end of their days do we learn about what they have accomplished, and then, only through words instead of visuals. The direct focus on storytelling pulls the viewer in as one of the group, being told frankly what the characters are feeling instead of experiencing it alongside them. There is no pretense that we could understand what they are going through or their emotions surrounding the place they know as home. We are invited to learn from them about their lives, but not to live with them in communion.
Interspersed within this upfront structure of storytelling are dozens of shots of the camp as seen from the rooftops, windows and homes of the inhabitants. We never see the city from its streets, and again are asked to only observe, not to live this reality. But, it is in these moments that we are able to experience most closely the emotions fueling the Shebab’s desire to both leave this place behind and to treasure their home in the camp. The buildings are crumbling, rusted satellite dishes spring up from every rooftop, tattered sheets hang across the open windows. But in the lights of dawn and twilight, the landscape is transformed into one of melancholy beauty. By night, thousands of lights twinkle through the city of Damascus on the horizon. By morning, mountains are seen encroaching on the vast sky. We get the same shot of the city’s rooftops in every possible time of day, and through this we come to understand how this small, tired city can make up an entire world for its inhabitants.