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Putting Yemen in the Spotlight

A still from the film Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq. (Sara Ishaq)
A still from the film Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq. (Sara Ishaq)
A still from the film “Karama Has No Walls,” directed by Sara Ishaq. (Sara Ishaq)

“Anwar’s life did not go to waste,” says one of the characters in Karama Has No Walls. The Oscar-nominated documentary by Yemeni–Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq is probably the most honest portrayal of Juma’at El-Karama, the Friday of Dignity on March 18, 2011, that changed Yemen’s history forever.

The documentary received widespread recognition, including a nomination for the BAFTA Scotland New Talent Award. It was awarded the Best Short Documentary Award at the United Nations Association Film Festival 2012, Outstanding Short Documentary at the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco in 2012, Best Short Film at the Al-Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival 2013, and Best Short Documentary at the EdinDocs Film Festival 2012. The latter award set the stage for the documentary’s Academy Award nomination.

More than three years later, Ishaq sits in a Cairo coffee shop reflecting on her experience of making the film and the months she spent shooting it in Yemen. To Ishaq, the past three years were an exhausting roller-coaster. And, even though they eventually brought her international acclaim, it is hard for her to rejoice. “It is a difficult film to celebrate. On the Friday of Dignity, a single day portrayed by the movie, over 50 people gave their lives for Yemen,” Ishaq told The Majalla, pointing to the uneasy incongruity between the massacre and later funerary procession at Sana’a’s Change Square and the professional delight expected from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker.

Sara Ishaq at the 86th Annual Academy Awards Oscar Week on February 26, 2014. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
Sara Ishaq at the 86th Annual Academy Awards Oscar Week on February 26, 2014. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

“If we’re to talk about moments of joy, then they would be related to the fact that Yemen made history,” she says, her face brightening while discussing the recognition her country received due to her movie. “Film is a medium which carries many messages, and Karama Has No Walls brought Yemen to the forefront. [The film’s] messages were watched by the world. The publicity that surrounded the documentary was an opportunity to shed light on the Yemeni people and [the] tragedy they went through; to many it was an eye-opener.”

The road to making this documentary was neither ordinary nor easy: Ishaq had not even planned on making a film about the Yemeni revolution. “I went to Yemen a month prior to the Friday of Dignity. I was working on The Mulberry House (Bayt Al-Tout), another film about my family, which I had to submit for my master’s in film directing at the Edinburgh College of Art. At the time, I did not know much about Yemen’s revolution, yet the day I landed in Sana’a I was immediately taken by the events,” Ishaq recalls the events of mid-February 2011, when students staged one of the larger protests outside Sana’a University. “My cousins were among the protestors. I went to see what was happening . . . I started to get to know people and encountered a bunch of cameramen and personnel from media centers. I entered the field hospital and spoke with the paramedics.”

Every day was marked by an obvious agitation, and things were heating up. “One week prior to the Friday of Dignity, people were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets during the fajr [dawn] prayer at the square,” says Ishaq. “Just before March 18, a wall was erected in the square, dividing the protesters. On this dreadful day, some people poured gasoline on top of the wall and lit it to create a smoke screen. It covered those shooting live ammunition at the protesters.” Those events are clearly presented in the film—but on this day Ishaq was actually with her family, working on The Mulberry House.

Ishaq later realized that “the extent of the slaughter [that day] was so big that it had to be documented.” So she got in touch with young men who were at the scene during the attack. Supported by Ameen Al-Ghaberi, who became the documentary’s director of photography, Ishaq managed to collect over 70 hours of footage from a few brave cameramen such as Khaled Rajjeh and Nasr Al-Namir. “We managed to reach families of a few victims before they became desensitized,” she says, pointing to a troubling reality that repeatedly witnessing atrocities over time can lead to emotional detachment.

The footage presented in Karama Has No Walls is powerful largely due its portrayal of the human experience. In it we see people being shot and hear people screaming as cameramen move hastily across the scene, attempting to document events while staying alive. In between the harrowing scenes, Ishaq introduces us to the father of a 16-year-old martyr named Anwar and the family of another boy, 11-year-old Selim. We learn that when Selim a bullet shattered both his eyes as he was out buying eggs for his mother.

The dialogue in the film is minimal, though a few poignant sentences suffice to grasp the pain experienced by so many. Effective too is the simple way these boys’ family members are presented. They come to represent the victims of the months-long struggle, as well as the Yemeni people and their demand to remove Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. Equally, the cameramen themselves play an important role and testify to the bravery of the young men involved.

“I returned to Scotland with material that would make 20 movies,” says Ishaq. “At first my professor at the Edinburgh College of Art was not [convinced] about me making a movie about the Yemeni events since he felt that it [was] too current affairs based, whereas the footage [I] collected for The Mulberry House seemed more cinematic. I insisted, though, and ended up with 50 minutes [of footage] which I was not happy with. Editing was extremely challenging. I felt I had to do justice to all involved in [the] Friday of Dignity, and cutting any second out from the unbearable violence seemed unfair to the people and to the cameramen who documented the massacre unfolding. Further editing resulted in the final cut of 25 minutes. My university submitted it to BAFTA and this is how it started.”

Then the interest surrounding Karama Has No Walls began to grow, Ishaq says: “It was with first nominations and an award that I thought, ‘It’s becoming serious.’ Two weeks after Oscars, I let all the Yemeni channels broadcast the film. I believe the film and the events it portrays will be remembered across the world. Equally, it is imprinted in the Yemeni psyche.”

When asked, three years later, whether she still believes Anwar did not die in vain, Ishaq hesitates before replying: “The change will come. [The] Friday of Dignity and many Fridays that followed reshaped Yemen and the minds of its people. It took Saleh months to step down and the country still struggles with many challenges. Every time I watch Karama Has No Walls, it resonates differently. I believe there is hope.”

Ishaq completed her master’s degree and released Karama Has No Walls and The Mulberry House concurrently. She underlines how the past few months have been particularly difficult. On the one hand, the events in Yemen strongly and positively impacted her personality; on the other, the commercial side of being in the limelight was exhausting.

Now taking a break in Egypt, the young director does not plan to make a new documentary any time soon. “In the coming months I hope to develop more skills, maybe take a workshop . . . I will also focus on writing more, and together with Kashmiri–American colleague Moussa Saeed we will work on a script about a tribal fiction story,” she concludes, adding that, for the time being, Egypt is a good base that allows her to be in closer contact with the region.

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Ati Metwaly
Ati Metwaly is a Polish/Egyptian journalist currently living in Egypt. She was co-founder and Editor in Chief of the first English language magazine on arts published in Egypt, The Art Review (2004-2009) and is now the Arts and Culture Editor of Ahram Online. Metwaly also writes a weekly critique for the printed newspaper, Al Ahram Weekly.

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