Short movies and new media cultivate Yemen’s film industry
Mohammad Al-Khayat (author), Mohammad Al-Khayat (photographer)
Ingmar Bergman once said, “film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
Over the past 20 years, the pleasure of watching a good movie in Yemen has largely moved from the public to the private domain, with cinemas long constituting a rarity in the country.
Having first been introduced by the British in Aden in the 1950s, cinemas were soon after to be opened throughout Yemen’s major cities, including Taiz and Sana’a.
Until today, some Sana’anis remember the two cinemas in Hadda street, which were shut down in the 1990s and remain closed until today.
Ahmed Al-Mammary, a film and theater actor who works with the Ministry of Culture, blames the ministry for a Yemen devoid of cinemas today. After the ministry stopped funding public cinemas in 1995, “there has been no real management to build up cinemas and re-open the cinemas that were closed,” he complains.
While Al-Mammary insists that cinemas should be re-introduced to Yemen, he admits that “the ministry does have some legitimate excuses [for keeping cinemas shut down], some of which are the lack of budget and the people’s rejection of having cinemas in Yemen.”
Indeed, violent attacks on movie goers and the opposition to cinemas by more conservative factions of society constitute a common explanation among Yemenis today as to why the cinemas closed. Religion is cited among the key reasons put forth by cinema-lovers, with references to the “Wahhabi influence” being wide-spread.
Even today, residents like Abdulmalik Ahmed from Sana’a perceive cinemas in Yemen as immoral and suspicious for their screening of “indecent movies” in the past. There was no control over the selection of movies, he complained, or separate sections for men and women inside cinemas.
Given that movie theaters continue to be widely perceived as a “foreign intrusion” incompatible with local customs and values, challenges are inevitable for Yemeni filmmakers who want to make their voices heard.
Without the money to produce films or the locations to screen their work, many have turned to the production of short movies which are published online, thereby creating a cultural and cinematic movement in Yemen.
“We produce films that require more effort than cash because we can provide the effort but no cash,” said short movie director Amer Gaadel, who is also the founder and director of Zoom Media, a team of amateur photographers, actors, and directors producing short films.
Yemeni filmmakers embrace new media
Abdulrahman Al-Jamili, director of Rawabit Media company, pioneered a group of media amateurs and film-enthusiasts interested in acting, directing, and producing when starting up his business in 2012.
Within a short period of time, the company became renowned for its short films and videos which saw a significant hike in views on YouTube. One of the videos, titled “Eish Feekom (What’s wrong with you),” got about 86,000 views.
Al-Jamili is convinced that without new media he could not have established the Rawabit Media company. “Without social media, we could not do a proper job and maintain our work. Our short movies simply could not spread the same way,” he explains.
Rawabit Media’s short movies vary from light comedy to more serious human rights issues and political criticism.
“Our main focus in short-films is the message we want to convey. The methods of delivery differ, it could be comical, tragic or any other style,” said Al-Jamili.
The motive underlying most short movie productions, according to Al-Jamili, is the goal to “contribute to a renaissance in our society.” He explains, “the short film industry is booming among high-class citizens who know of short movies’ importance in spreading awareness about issues like the empowerment of women, early marriage, sexual abuse of children, or tribal revenge cases.”
According to Al-Jamili, the low revenues of short movie productions pose a significant threat to keep the production running. A medium-sized short film, lasting five minutes costs an average of $1,500, including the actors pay, according to Al-Jamili.
Given the dire economic situation that Yemen’s short film industry faces, companies like Rawabit Media or Zoom Media need to occasionally resort to producing advertisement.
Not too long ago, Rawabit Media produced a movie for the local NGO Righteousness and Chastity, which works to facilitate marriages between young Yemenis.
The film tells the story of a young man wanting to get married, yet imagining unrelenting obstacles such as high dowry payments. By ending the video on a happy note, with the couple being able to marry, the Righteousness and Chastity Organization promoted its mass marriage project for 550 couples.
Amer Gaadel finds himself in a similarly difficult financial situation as Al-Jamili, unsatisfied that most of the short films Zoom Media produces are promotional in nature. “Most short films made by us are sponsored by associations and organizations which ask us to produce a short film about their activities or about a topic they are dealing with, in which case the content is provided to us.”
For Fuad Al-Jaadi, assistant director at the Magic Touch Production company, it is clear that a lack of financial recourses explains why “some of the short film ideas remain just ideas.”
While the producers of short movies are in need of encouragement from relevant authorities, they face a significant lack of support. “Awards and recognition are limited to the Yemen Film Festival which gives five awards for the top films,” Gaadel opines.
The Yemen Film Festival is a competition developed specifically to recognize amateur filmmaker talent. As such, production companies or large media houses are forbidden from entering. Submissions are restricted to individuals where the prize is a monetary sum of YR600,000 ($2,800), a high definition camera, and the film award itself.
Onwards and upwards for short film industry
Al-Jaadi points out that despite significant challenges, the film “Ehsan” made by Yemeni director Musaab Al-Hutami won third place in Mukhtar Short Islamic Film Festival in France for the category “Best short film in the Arabian region.” This achievement has been considered a quantum leap in Yemen’s short film industry.
“Ehsan” is not the only film that has won an international competition. The Yemeni film “A New Day in Old Sana'a” won the Best Arab Film Award in Cairo's International Film Festival in 2005, also being the first Yemeni film to enter Cannes International Film Festival, according to Abdullah Yahya Ibrahim, an actor and director.
One of the Yemeni short movies which enjoys particular popularity on social media and won fourth place in the Yemen Film Festival in 2013, is “Political Game.” The five-minute-long video clip, which is available on YouTube, portrays the 2011 uprising with the help of animated toys that move across a chess board.
Just like short movie producers, the government is well aware of the political and social power of films. In an attempt to warn people about the dangers of terrorism and the joining terrorist groups, the Ministry of Interior produced “The Losing Bet” in 2008. The stereotypical plot tells the story of a Yemeni man who returned from a longer stay abroad influenced by dangerous, extremist ideas. Upon his return he recruits neighbors and friends, focusing on the unemployed, eventually launching a terrorist attack which kills a number of tourists. The picture seems so complete that details of his wife, a painter who is made to abandon her profession after suffering excessive violence by her art-hating husband, seem redundant.
While short movies are limited to social media, government produced movies are aired on the state-run Al-Yemen channel.
In spite of such obvious disadvantages, the producers of short movies stay motivated to continue their work.
“There is no way to measure our success in raising awareness and changing society, but the positive responses we get on Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp motivate us to continue what we do,” said Al-Jamili.
For Fuad Al-Jaadi “short film production is a new medium of art for the people of Yemen. We have been creative in this field for some time now and there are many big and important ideas. If the ideas were implemented they would be an amazing window into Yemeni culture for audiences of short films around the world.”