Yemeni-Scot filmmaker Sara Ishaq to the Yemen Times: “It’s silly for the government to restrict the cinema movement.”

Published on 9 August 2012 in Interview
Sadeq Al-Wesabi (author)

Sadeq Al-Wesabi

Sara Ishaq

Sara Ishaq

Armed with dogged determination, high skills and great confidence, Yemeni-Scot filmmaker Sara Ishaq persists in fulfilling her dream of enhancing the reputation of cinema in Yemen.

Unlike Yemeni filmmakers who choose to live outside Yemen, Sara plans to stay in Yemen to improve the country’s cinema industry and to substantially contribute to creating new concepts and styles.

Ishaq said the restrictions she could face from the government or from religious groups would not stop her from working to improve the Yemeni cinema movement.

Recently, she finished her MFA in film directing with distinction from Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. In 2008, she received a diploma in Documentary Filmmaking from the London Academy of Radio, Film and TV.

In the past month, her reputable documentary about Yemen’s revolution, “Karama Has No Walls,” aired on BBC and garnered the admiration of Yemenis and non-Yemenis alike. The film was nominated for the BAFTA New Talent Award.
 Sara’s filmography
“Father-Land”: Feature documentary (In Progress).
Yemen (2012)

“Karama Has No Walls” Debut documentary (26 min.).
Yemen (2012)

“Guerrilla Journalism: A Yemeni Revolution” Video-blog
Yemen (2011)

“Yemen Uprising” BBC Newsnight & Our World Episode (30min.)
Camera Operator/
Assistant Director

“Funeral Procession in Change Square” Video-blog (4:30 min.).
Yemen (2011)

“A Peaceful Protest in Change Square” Video-blog (4 min.).

“Marie, My Girl” Short Experimental Drama (8:30 min.).
Director/Editor, UK (2011)

“Sheikh Jarrah: Families of East Jerusalem” Video-blog (12 min.).
Palestine (2009)

“Liberation Through Art” Short doc (4:30 min.).
Director/Camera/Editor; UK

“Women in Black” 5-part series (5x30min.).
Researcher/translator; UK

The documentary focused on shedding light on those responsible for the massacre that killed more than 50 people on March 18, 2011. The film also focuses on Yemeni youth persistence and determination.

The 26-minute documentary refutes all rumors about who was responsible for the deadly attack and makes it clear for people to judge who perpetrated the widely condemned crime without accusing any party.

During filming, Ishaq faced several problems and difficulties. It was very difficult for her to move around and film freely because there was a lot of attention, especially on camera people. She, along with her crew, made careful movements throughout the filming process.

Funding was also a challenge. Ishaq produced, directed and edited the documentary herself at a cost of approximately 80,000 pounds.

Biased media

Yemenis have lost their trust in Yemeni state and opposition channels, Ishaq said.

“Both sides of Yemeni media outlets were biased.”

As a result, she never depended on these channels for information, especially for her documentary.

Ishaq said it pains her to see damaged local cinemas such as Bilquis Cinema in Sana’a, which closed in 2004.

“People should take the initiative to develop the culture of art in Yemen,” she said, pointing out that Yemenis are interested in cinema.

Ishaq wants to contribute to improving Yemeni cinema “by running workshops, encouraging and inspiring people to make their films and by educating them about the different forms of documentaries.”

In her upcoming documentaries, she will focus on human rights issues and cover the problems of marginalized people (Akhdam), Jewish people, refugees and other minorities located in Yemen.

Sara said she firmly believes in the importance of highlighting human rights issues. After four months in Palestine, she realized the importance of short films in shedding light on humanitarian issues.

Cinema as a priority in Yemen

“Art creates a more productive society, and if I were a minister of culture, I’d make cinema my priority.”

Ishaq holds the government mainly responsible for the negative impacts on Yemeni cinema; however, she said society is partly responsible for this deterioration.

Drama, she said, is a particular area that needs improvement.

“We are good at comedy, but Yemeni drama needs some work.”

Ishaq is willing to help Yemeni artists improve their performance.

“Improving the cinema situation in Yemen is going to be a huge challenge.”

She stressed the importance of youth in improving the cinema situation and said Yemeni youth are capable of making change but lack confidence.

Currently, Ishaq is working on a documentary titled “Father Land.” It’s been described as a humorous film about her relationship with her father.

One of the film’s aims is to portray Yemeni life.

“People want to see what’s going on in Yemeni houses.”

Ishaq said her family hugely helped her achieve her aims.

“In the beginning they were scared because I was in Palestine, and I had some clashes with them, but then they supported me.”

She said living in Scotland was a challenge, but she learned several things she couldn’t have learned in Yemen, with filmmaking the most important of those things.

“I’m not just a Yemeni woman living in Scotland, but I’m a Yemeni-Scot woman, so I have two different cultural backgrounds. I have an Islamic background, and Yemeni culture is very much ingrained in me.”

Ambitions and challenges

Ishaq is ambitious and optimistic about the future of Yemeni cinema.

“My ambition is to keep making films and establish a cultural center in which artists can gather and meet.”

“I hope to establish such institute in Yemen, but right now the budget is the problem.”

She said if Yemenis have funding, access and support, then Yemeni films will be able to compete at the international level.

For Ishaq, cinema is not just drama or comedy like what is shown on Yemeni state channels. Cinema is multifaceted and can be used as a medium to reflect on issues serious and non-serious, funny and sad.

“In Yemen, you have access to stories and information, and people are willing to help you.”

She said being a filmmaker in Yemen is easy in some ways and hard in other ways, criticizing the government for trying to limit the cinema movement.

“It’s silly for the government to restrict the cinema movement,” she said, indicating that some people, including businessmen, underestimate the significance and the power of cinema.

“Cinema can hugely empower Yemenis and raises awareness of Yemenis about the situation in Yemen,” she said. “We have a rich culture and beautiful scenery. Art can boost economy in Yemen.”

Sara said Yemenis are already infected by cinema.

“How can kids and young youth, who never left Yemen, speak with American accents? It’s because of their exposure to films. They watch films on T.V. or on the Internet; they buy DVDs and pirated copies. They are already influenced by the cinema.”

Despite the difficulties she discussed, Ishaq is confident the future of cinema in Yemen will be prosperous. Yemen, she said, has talented photographers, talented cinematographers and talented storytellers.

If youth collaborate and use their skills, talents and own equipment to help each other this way, the cinema movement will improve, she said.

“I’m responsible for showing others Yemen’s culture.”