“Is there a cinema industry in Yemen?” asks Yahiya Suhail, a 52-year-old actor, director, scenarist and theater critic, his gaping mouth and wide eyes signaling his confusion and surprise.
Although Suhail has been in the business for 40 years, that was his answer when Newsweek Middle East asked him about the current state of the cinema industry in Yemen.
“We cannot say that there is a cinema industry in Yemen. All short and long movies produced [there] are no more than simple attempts at creating [movies] but they do not rise to a cinema industry level,” Suhail says.
Although Yemen was the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to screen a film in 1910, it wasn’t until the 1920s that films were produced in the country—as result of European expeditions shooting documentaries there.
Today, the industry as a whole in Yemen is fighting for survival due to turbulent times. There are few films that have been produced over the past 10 years in the country, and the ravaging war is a main contributor to the decline in production of long-form movies.
But amid the destruction, there is still hope.
“War-torn Yemen is a great place for creating documentaries and documenting humanitarian stories,” Yemeni filmmaker Hanan Karim tells Newsweek Middle East.
Aside from armed clashes, hurdles such as lack of funding and religious restrictions often stand in the way of producing movies in Yemen.
Huda Ablan, Yemen’s minister of culture, appointed by the de-facto authority Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, tells Newsweek Middle East “the ministry’s budget does not allow any support or production of any movies.”
Despite claiming that the ministry “offers all available support for young filmmakers and encourages people to create movies talking about the concerns of Yemenis,” Ablan is quick to note that the budget for the industry is limited. “The budget shrunk due to besiegement and the ongoing war.”
The minister further claims that there are no restrictions from the ministry on filmmakers in Yemen. “It is a helping hand, not a supervising authority,” she says, adding that no force is exerted on filmmakers “to obey” any special policies.
However, the reality on the ground is completely different. The list of restrictions imposed by Houthi rebels on young filmmakers runs long.
There is no escape from that, especially when armed Houthi fighters are spread all over the areas they control, including Sana’a, where carrying a camera without the Houthis’ permission is a reason for you to be interrogated and detained.
In addition to that, the Houthis’ Media Committee forces requires all those who wish to film near security and military establishments to take permission beforehand.
According to filmmaker Muhammad Seraj, Houthis act as a monitoring authority, and censor movie content and forbid making films without their prior consent.
“The procedures we impose are not against filmmakers, as much as they are for them,” argues Abutalib Al Mutawakel, a Houthi leading figure.
“These permissions facilitate shooting for [filmmakers], and constitute a security guarantee for us as an authority that these young men are not operating for any foreign channel that works against the country’s best interests,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
Meanwhile, away from politics, a group of young Yemeni men and women who believe that cinema can affect people’s behavior, have dedicated themselves to changing their society’s current stance and garnering more interest in the industry.
Shift Initiative’s Deputy Chief Hamza Al Hemiary says that cinema may help increase public awareness with regards to certain issues.
“We started this initiative and coordinated with others to screen movies in places where the youth gather, such as universities, cafés and clubs,” the 22-year-old activist tells Newsweek Middle East.
“In each event we screen two movies. [Usually] the first one is foreign and the second is a Yemeni one, to promote Yemeni films as well,” he adds.
And people seem to be loving the idea. Wherever Shift Initiative plans to screen a movie, guests fill the place and the less fortunate ones who fail to secure a chair are usually left to watch the movie standing.
As soon as you enter the Yemeni House for Theater and Cinema – where amateurs take acting and directing and photography courses – Ahmed Al Mamary, the house’s manager, greets you with a wide smile.
Dressed in a stylish navy suit and red tie that gives him an air of sophistication, Mamary explains that “cinema in Yemen has suffered numerous challenges for a long time, especially when it comes to content due to lack of experience and lack of interaction with cinemas abroad.”
However, he says, “This recent war has seen the rise in creativity conceived by Yemen’s suffering. What Yemeni actors have lived through is reflected in front of the camera.”
Like most Yemenis, Abdul Aziz Al Badani, a well-known 38-year-old actor, relates to his country’s woes.
Al Badani’s brother was killed during a missile attack targeting Maaber City in Dhamar province in May 2015. His brother was 35 and left behind five children and a young widow.
Badani has acted in major roles in seven Yemeni TV serials. Each one included 30 episodes and he played the lead in three of them. He also has 13 movies and hundreds of plays under his belt.
However, he is particularly proud of his most recent work, his role in the movie Birds of Hell, which was based on a novel written by Yemeni scenarist Amin Al Matari.
“When I was assigned the leading role in this movie, I read it 30 times. I was greatly moved by it,” says Badani.
The movie is about a writer in Sana’a who was forced to stop his business due to war. As the sole provider for his small family that includes his wife and little daughter, the writer strives to put bread on the table. But the expenses are high especially given that his child suffers from a genetic disease and needs constant medication. At the end of the movie, the father dies while holding his baby’s medication in his hand.
With tears in his eyes Badani adds, “Maybe I am moved by this movie because of the similar circumstances surrounding my brother’s death. I imagined that I was him when I played my part in this movie.”
Sami Al Yatim, 41, the director of the movie, says, “Matari and I agreed to direct this film together. However, we only had $5,000, which was not enough to produce it. When we presented the idea to the Sustainable Development Foundation, it supported us with an additional $3,000 in exchange for being sponsors of the movie and we agreed.”
But, despite the shortage of funds, the team was excited, according to Yatim.
“This was the first movie that dealt with the effects of war without adopting a political standpoint or following a certain political party,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
A specific scene in the movie in which the lead actor kisses his wife’s hand “was the first between a Yemeni male and female actors in front of the camera,” he adds.
His lead actress, Sumaya Al Mualiki, 26, tells Newsweek Middle East that the scene “was essential in the movie, to show how the husband in the real story treated his wife and to shed light on the romance between them.”
The movie is yet to be posted on YouTube, as Yatim plans to participate in film festivals, in an attempt to present the movie to a wider audience, not to win a prize, he insists.