Stories behind the shells

Published

Henry Cohn
Writer

Review: First Yemeni Short Film Festival in Edinburgh

The end of March (27-31) marked the first Yemeni Short Film Festival to be held in Scotland. Organised by COLOURS of Edinburgh who are a student/graduate-led social enterprise aimed at drawing attention to the challenges and opportunities faced by refugees and asylum seekers, in partnership with To Yemen With Love, a Glasgow-based organisation working to to raise awareness of the Yemen crisis. It took place in Edinburgh College of Art and mainly featured short films produced by Comra Films, a Yemen-based foundation for filmmaking training. Sweety House, a Syrian bakery in the Southside of Edinburgh, also provided baklava in a bid to raise more money. Half the proceeds of the event went to Yemen Aid, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people, “regardless of race, political affiliation, ancestry or religion”. The other half went to COLOURS, which undertook to send part of its half to partner charities The Welcoming and Bikes for Refugees, using the rest to organise future events. To Yemen With Love also promoted its fundraising event due to take place on 15 June, describing it as “a night in Glasgow full of poetry, music, art, Yemeni culture, as well as speakers highlighting the situation in Yemen”.

Most of the films were documentaries about how ordinary life within Yemen has been affected by the war, which has resulted in the internal displacement of more than 3 million people since 2015. A Yellow Life (Osama Haji) captures abandoned cityscapes from the perspective of the narrator’s bicycle, who recounts the hardship of having nothing to do after the war deprived Yemenis of jobs and community, “because without action, everything dies and withers”. A Pill (Sabreen Al-Yousefi) tells a grandmother’s story of how her daughter Fatima’s congenital tonsillitis, which was treated without any problems her whole life, ultimately becomes fatal after the onset of war. Forced to move from Aden to the small town of Mukayras for her children’s safety, Fatima has her friends search every chemist in Sana’a for the necessary medication but to no avail: due to the blockades, they only find it by travelling to the governorate of Ibb, by which point they are too late. Perhaps the most bleak of all the films, the tragedy is balanced by delicate, Terence Davies-style tracking shots of empty but not dilapidated interiors, darkly suggestive of the grandmother’s devastating loss.

Other films depict conditions in the Markazi Refugee Camp in Obock, Djibouti, where only 2,170 Yemenis remained as of 2018, many having chosen to return to Yemen. The festival opened with Yemen: The Silent War (Sufian Abulohom), which features interviews with the camp’s residents and photography of the camp and the coastline from which Yemen is visible, superimposed with deathly animations of children playing hopscotch and wading on the beach. While the camp remains the safer alternative to a wavering ceasefire in Yemen, it is plagued by poor sanitation, causing diarrhoea and cholera, and the absence of any fixed community, meaning that families living there to escape the dangers of war receive substandard education in the camp’s school. The Way Home (Abulohom) is a fictional account of a boy who convinces his pal Laith to leave the camp and swim to Yemen with him to “save” his dad, who is rumoured to be released from prison by Eid; perhaps a tribute to the camp’s commitment to solidarity, which has caused them to reject any donations that don’t secure all camp refugees.

But many of the films take to task issues which long predate the advent of war. Abdu (Wissam Aljamaly) explores how poverty affects children in Sana’a. Recording a day in the life of a young boy, it begins by showing his eagerness to study, which is then muted by a full day of doing odd jobs. The war nonetheless marks its presence in the depiction of a poorly attended wedding reception, the result of such events having become common military targets. Paintbrush (Zakaria Sayeed) follows cartoonist Sameer from his initial desire for fame and experiences of success through years of homelessness and living in motels, exploitation by the Ministry for Culture, and witnessing his homeless mentor lose his mind. Art then transforms from the means for achieving prosperity to a less tangible matter of faith: it is only necessary insofar as it is “more powerful than life’s incessant traumas”. Octave (Ahmed Halmah) gives elderly musician Abullah Aldobai’s account of growing up in a time in Yemen when musical instruments didn’t exist, and people mostly listened to music produced in Kuwait. His struggles now lie in the puritanical views of many Yemenis that playing music is sinful, which may be attributed to the Saudi Arabian influence that has taken hold of the country in recent decades. Fareed (Mohammed Alraqeeb), on the other hand, follows a Quran singer and accordion player who achieved success as part of “the best band in Yemen” despite the proliferation of such attitudes, and set up a music studio in his Sana’a apartment. Subtitled ’25 days of war ruined 25 years of diligent work’, it interviews him after the studio was ransacked at the onset of war, causing him to develop depression and a polyp on his vocal cord that stopped him singing.

The festival appropriately ended with the poetic Frame (Berwaz) (Alwar Sanreeb), a tribute to cinema in a country where the industry has little history, with only two feature-length films ever having been produced there, and cinemas closing down because of prohibitive tax measures from puritan-appeasing authorities. The narrator looks at his country and asks, “why aren’t these scenes being shown on a cinema screen?” The answer now appears to lie in both the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition preventing foreign journalists to the best of their ability from entering Yemen, and preventing recordings of Yemen from being disseminated internationally. But the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Springs provided a catalyst for a glut of artistic production, and despite the war causing Yemen’s residual competence for repression to become extreme and affect every part of life, this spirit has survived. The importance of such production cannot be understated, owing to the poor international coverage of the war and the imperative task of understanding the struggles of Yemenis, who may one day manage to escape and find it necessary to seek asylum in Europe. As the Frame narrator relates, “we tell stories because we can’t understand the world without a story,” and “cinema is the solution to make those stories last a thousand years”.

To Yemen With Love Fundraising Event 2019: 15 June, Glasgow School of Art Students’ Association 20 Scott Street Glasgow G3 6PE.