Remembering the French film-maker Axel Salvatori-Sinz
This is Yarmouk!

French film-maker and activist Axel Salvatori-Sinz, whose documentary "The Shebabs of Yarmouk" (2013) earned him international acclaim, died tragically from cancer at the beginning of 2018, aged just 36. Palestinian singer Reem Kelani, who worked on the music for the film, penned this obituary for

In early 2014, the eyes of the world were focussed on Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, when a shocking photo went viral. Released by UNRWA, it depicted hundreds of men, women and children queuing for food parcels, as part of an aid programme described as a ʹdrop in the oceanʹ in terms of need.

Some young Palestinian refugees had left Yarmouk soon after the Syrian uprising began in 2011, but not the charismatic actor and filmmaker Hassan Hassan (1985-2013). He was picked up later as he tried to leave. No-one heard any news of him for two and a half months, until the security authorities informed his parents that he had died. The parentsʹ grief was compounded when the authorities refused to give his body back. Itʹs now commonly believed that Hassan was tortured to death in prison, although the authorities insist that he ʹdied the day he was arrestedʹ in September 2013. As if one scenario is more palatable than the other.

Those who did manage to leave are now scattered across continents. Tasneem Fared (b. 1989) made it to Sicily and now lives in Germany; Samer Salameh (b. 1985) and Waed Abou Houssein (b. 1985) live in France; Alaa Alsadi (b. 1986) in Chile. For the young people of Yarmouk, the shebab, their sense of Nakba is reinforced by this exodus from the camp that was once their home.

A lasting testament

In the years that preceded the Arab Spring, French filmmaker Axel Salvatori-Sinz travelled to Syria to document the lives of the shebab in a film that would become both a classic and a lasting testament to the lives of these dreamers. From October 2009 to December 2011, Axelʹs camera was like a friend to the shebab, listening to them and opening its shutter to their woes and hopes.

The Shebabs of Yarmouk (2012) was screened in more than seventy festivals and earned many awards, among them Regard Neuf for Best First Film at Visions du Reel 2013 and RTP Award for Best Research Film at Doclisboa 2013.

Axelʹs family and friends were dumbstruck when he passed away on 6 January 2018, aged 36. Having been rushed to hospital on Christmas Eve, he was put into an induced coma, during which he was diagnosed with acute lymphatic cancer. Two weeks later, he died.

An overwhelming love for Palestine

The well-attended funeral took place in Chazay dʹAzergues near Lyon. Samer Salameh was one of the pallbearers and Tasneem Fared among the mourners, ululating as a Palestinian sister would at her brotherʹs wedding. Present too was an emphasis on Axelʹs love for Palestine, which was reiterated in a moving speech by his father.

A year before his passing, Axel directed his camera at himself, re-enacting a sort of a Corsican joust between father and son. They returned to Cateri in Corsica, the ancestral village of the Salvatori family. The film, Call and Response (2017), featured a local band singing a traditional song which may allude not just to Axelʹs relationship with his father, but to the plight of the refugees of Yarmouk.

In a gutsy attempt, Axelʹs questions delved into Lacanian psychoanalysis (after the controversial French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, 1901-1981). Lying on a sofa after an argument with his father, Axel seemed as much at a loss for words as Alaa Alsadi in The Shebabs of Yarmouk. Axel had filmed Alaa lying face down on a divan in a room overlooking the camp in which his grandparents had sought refuge after the dispossession of 1948. Comparing both films, one can see how Axelʹs roots and his own existential challenges made him the person to get into the world of the shebab.

At the end of The Shebabs of Yarmouk, Axel asked each member of the group to read to camera their thoughts in what amounted to beautifully crafted letters. The final reading was done by Hassan shortly after completing his military service. Although Axel is the person being addressed, he is nowhere to be seen (he was unable to get to Syria because of the deteriorating situation). Yet, Axelʹs presence is felt in every word the shebab read.

ʹWho truly knows the Syrian regime?ʹ

Little did Axel know that two years after the release of The Shebabs of Yarmouk, he would be making another film about the camp. Dear Hassan (2014) switches between the streets of Paris and the alleys of Yarmouk and it features Axelʹs own words. Itʹs his turn to write a letter, via typed words on the screen, addressed to his Khayya, his brother, Hassan.

Dedicated to ʹWaed, the others, and the Syrian peopleʹ, the film uses camera cuts to take us back and forth to Yarmouk: the film, the place and the time. We see the shebab huddled together in a room overlooking a camp cluttered with dilapidated buildings and mushrooming satellite dishes.

The poignancy of the message is clear, and it is most obvious when we see the engaged couple, Hassan and Waed, sitting lovingly on a rooftop. Axelʹs lonely monologue allows the viewer to sense the portent of what is to come.

Dear Hassan ends with a question that remains without answer to this day: ʹWho truly knows the Syrian regime?ʹ

When Axel invited me to write the music for the opening credits of The Shebabs of Yarmouk, I composed an instrumental piece. Later, he expressed his wish that the melody be accompanied by lyrics, so I had to reverse-engineer the song. Iyad Hayatleh, a Yarmouk refugee who has lived in Scotland for two decades, came to the rescue, devising lyrics which aptly described the phenomenon that is Yarmouk:

                    This is Yarmouk!

                    O moon

                    Your light will wipe the darkness of the siege

                    On your white doorsteps.

                    The childrenʹs smiles will vanquish

                    The pains of my demise.

                    And the martyrsʹ blood

                    Will breathe life into me.

                    And through the blessings of old mothers

                    Iʹll imbibe the anthems of my triumph.

                    This is Yarmouk!

                    My song... My desire... my yearning

                    Are all for my home.

                    This is Yarmouk!

ʹAxoulʹ, as he was known to his friends, will be missed by all those who knew and worked with him, as well as by those whose narrative interested him, as a filmmaker and an activist. 

Reem Kelani

© 2018

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