The importance of film within our society is one that is often neglected. Whether due to social or political implications, we have come to turn a blind eye to a modest medium in which stories are lived through experience and not just simply told. However, as of late, creativity has bloomed. Yemen has begun to endeavor in a story of its own, with its youth of writers, photographers, designers and filmmakers liberating the arts.
Omne trium perfectum – In old latin, it has long been said that the most perfect things come in three, whether these are tales past told to children with hope of unleashing ingenuity in the future such as The Three Stooges, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, the resonant France’s national motto coined by the French revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Churchill’s “Blood, Sweat and Tears”, the poignant triplet in which none where spared by the events that took place during Friday March 18th, 2011.
In the run up to the 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony, drawing focus to a momentous achievement for the shy but savvy Yemeni film industry, a Documentary Short Subject was short-listed for the illustrious Oscar nomination, the aptly named Karama Has No Walls, an apolitical film that chronicles the brutal onslaught of events that took place on that Friday. A pivotal, metamorphic changing point of Yemen’s revolution. Not only because those who lost their lives, although never taken with ease, but also because of the upheaval that followed. A profound story that narrates the crimes committed, against the dozens of fallen protestors within Change Square, through the emblematic and personal accounts of the cameramen and family members of those injured and lost, as the day that shook Yemen unraveled on Jumaat Al-Karama, the Friday of Dignity.
La Voix du Yémen brings you a humble in-depth interview with Yemen’s own masterful threesome, Abdulrahman Hussain, Ameen Al-Ghabri and Sara Ishaq, the makers of Karama Has No Walls.
La Voix du Yémen (LVDY): Many people distinctly remember where they were, what they were doing when the events took place. It’s not something that can easily slip the mind. Do you recall the events of that day?
Abdulrahman Hussain: I woke up to sounds of gunfire and shelling. I immediately ran to my mother to see what was happening. I turned on the TV, my stomach churned and I was left with a horrible sinking feeling. I picked up my phone to call Ameen, a friend of mine who I had previously worked on a film with. I knew he, and several others had been there filming at the time.
Sara Ishaq: Usually I would be in Change Square, but as it was Friday I was filming The Mulberry House, my family’s personal account on the impact of revolution from another perspective, home. After witnessing the events on TV, suddenly I felt as if what I was focusing on was in fact trivial compared to what was out there happening in the street.
Ameen Al-Ghabri: I recall filming Friday prayers from the journalists tower as a group of photographers where present in Change Square on the day, we would often sleep there, waiting for an attack. I look back and before me ash smoke rose engulfing the sky followed by sounds of bullets. I rushed over to the field hospital and filmed the scores of those injured and dead. The shock of adrenaline allowed me to hold my ground, carrying on hiding behind a lens and the click of a shutter, unable to put my camera down. I was overcome with the fear that if I did, all the blood, flesh and tears would become a reality I couldn’t bear to handle.
LVDY: Its quite clear that it was a moment that had a compelling effect on all three of you. What lead you to decide it was worth documenting it?
Ameen: We had all the correct pieces and it was our duty to utilise our skills and actually compose a piece where people could become impartial spectators into comprehending the full extent of the brutality. The idea was one of concrete, already there set in motion, it just needed to be laid into brick.
Abdulrahman: The day after the 18th I went to the to view the footage that had been taken. We felt as if were obliged to do something, we could not let this day go unremembered. The only thing I understood was film making. This story was meant to be told and it was our responsibility to use the tools we had in order to do so. A friend of mine from university told me about a filmmaker who was in Yemen at the time, and that’s how we met Sara Ishaq.
LVDY: What were your thoughts when you viewed the footage?
Sara: Horrified. It was raw, you could hear them take in every breath, grown men whispering their Shahada as they were approaching death. I was intoxicated with goose bumps. Although, the horror alone isn’t what drew me, humans being compassionate towards one another, as depicted in certain scenes of the film, how in true altruism sacrificed their life, putting themselves in the eye of danger to protect the protestors and how the cameramen risked their lives to let the story live on. That makes Karama Has No Walls unique, its humanity.
LVDY: What in particular made you choose certain aspects of the story?
Ameen: We had the option of telling the story from a variety of perspectives. It was a matter of choosing the most human, relatable direction. We decided that the story did not have to focus on certain moment person.
Sara: There was no need for a character, the main character was Change Square, the wall that was built and their dignity. How these people would dip in and out to fill in the blanks, giving us a bigger perspective of what happened, building the day and watching the environment change and then eventually unravel.
LVDY: What was it like meeting Saleem’s and Anwar’s Fathers?
Sara: I was like anyone else who didn’t know much about what happened on the day. Adults made a conscious decision to take the risk. It was harder to face the fact that kids were injured and killed. We were determined to find Saleem, in a strange twist of fate, we did. Saleem’s interview taught us that we couldn’t back away now. I struggled between a tissue and a camera. He was so eloquent and well composed. With younger brothers of my own, one of the same age as Saleem. I could put myself in his family’s shoes.
Ameen: The image of Saleem, who had his eyes shot, in the field hospital was something that stayed with all of us. Despite what he had endured he was still able to articulate his emotions. We were touched by his bravery.
Sara: With Anwar’s father, as far as my knowledge of tribesman went is they do not show emotion. However, Anwar’s father expressed his emotion without bounds.
Ameen: It’s a strange, daunting feeling watching a man cry. To be able to cope with the loss of life, let alone that of your own child, is not something many of us will ever come to understand.
LVDY: A recurring theme all of you have mentioned is responsibility. Taking on such a paramount task must have been a challenge with hardship. What have you personally gained from this experience?
Abdulrahman: None of us will deny that things did get tough; it was very difficult to see this going into a successful route. At times, it felt as if this film was the only reason I existed. Despite its misery, because of the revolution, I was able to meet some of dearest people I know, many who have come to change my life. The true achievement lies with being able to get the message out to the world. That’s more than what we could have wanted.
Ameen: The images from my time in the square are ingrained in my memory, a place they will surely never leave. I strongly doubted why I had begun to do this. The responsibility soon became a burden. However, to see the impact it has made on those who were in Change Square was worth the agony and self-conflict. Understanding that this film was not about us, nor our own selfish ambitions. It was their film, not ours.
Sara: Sometimes I felt completely alone, isolated. These were risks we were all willing to take. Filmmaking can be such a self-serving career, usually to state an opinion or a biased agenda, but this project taught me that filmmaking can also be self-less. I look back at when I was in university, when ideas were self orientated, what story I could I tell, what script could I write. When embarking on this, I could not think about myself. It was a film we had a responsibility to make. Not out of guilt, but we at least owed it to those who risked their life, to Anwar and his Family and to Saleem. It was something that had to be done and before the one year anniversary.
LVDY: How long did it take you to work on it post-production?
Sara & Abdulrahman: There was no glory. A week of filming and at least 10 months being elbow deep in editing. Lots of money spent on coffee shops in a bid to scurry while the electricity was still on.
LVDY: Being short-listed for an Oscar nomination, is not something that should be taken lightly. Did you ever think it would reach such amicable success?
Abdulrahman & Ameen: We would often joke, as a way to get us through some of the toughest days, about one day going to the Oscars and what speech we would have prepared in full mockery. But, never in our wildest fantasies would that joke become a hint of reality.
Sara: We may have, as a joke! It wasn’t our intention to get this film to reach the Oscars. I couldn’t even believe the email when it was in my inbox, truthfully, I dismissed it as a random email and sent it to my spam folder. We didn’t know the extent of it, or how it would grow, but without our control somehow it just grew.
The Oscar nomination announcements will be made today at 5:30 am local time (4:30 pm Yemen time). Whether or not Karama Has No Walls goes on to win, is a question that shall be left to the bookmakers. However, here, remains no doubt in the significance that this accomplishment holds or how it will come to arouse the achievable possibilities of placing Yemen, to some a fictional land of broken hopes, on a global cinematic map for a publication focusing on something besides drone strikes and AQAP hold outs.
Abdulrahman Hussain – Assistant Director
Ameen Al-Ghabri – Director of Photography
Sara Ishaq – Director
Interview conducted by Rawan Shaif
Rawan Shaif is a British-Yemeni student currently pursuing the never ending chase of becoming a Doctor.
UPDATE (03/03/14 – 6:oo am) : Nominated for the 86th Academy Awards ceremony in the Documentary Short Subject category, Karama Has No Walls didn’t receive the Oscar.