The birth of Yemeni cinema seems difficult to achieve. Not many have given thought to the idea, whether it be in the south or the north, an area overflowing with frustration before unification. In the past, the Yemeni government sent a few of its citizens to study theater and cinema in socialist countries. Its primary aim was to find ways to produce documentary films about environmental and social issues.
After Yemen’s unification in 1990, a project called the General Institution for Cinema and Theater was proposed, and 18 years ago, a presidential decree officially recognized the institution. However, the organization has yet to do anything practical, and for the moment it has not produced even a single one-minute film.
Badr al-Harasi’s film is considered by many as the first that revived people’s hopes for the creation of a Yemeni cinema industry, along with the movies of Khadija al-Salami and Hamid Uqabi. These three films made it to Arab and international film festivals, but unfortunately, none of the filmmakers who represent Yemeni cinema received any support from the government. On the contrary, they faced a slew of difficulties throughout the filming process. Harasi’s film was subject to harsh criticism, and some even attempted to ban it outright after the director refused to make modifications to the script because the film allegedly contained curse words offensive to Yemeni customs and traditions. The director insisted on preserving the original script, claiming that it was reflective of the realities of Yemeni society and that it should not be taken as an intentional vulgarity.
Furthermore, training actors for the film, especially first-timers, was a time-consuming process. Yemeni actors’ lack of experience in the art of cinema — despite experience as TV actors — nearly led to the cancellation of the film. From time to time, we read reports about new productions. However, any hopes that these works will receive official support from the Yemeni government are dim. In any case, there are practically no films being made.
Many of those who have attempted to work in the Yemeni film industry have found themselves forced to cancel their projects. Whether filmmakers works inside or outside the official framework, the result is the same: they are accused of being frauds who aim to distort the image of Yemen abroad. Many a project by filmmakers not abiding by traditional policies or norms has been foiled. This led many to forget about the status of art and artists, and consequently the field of art was monopolized by a small group under the former regime.
The Yemeni Ministry of Culture and its minister have been reluctant to encourage the cinema industry so as not to provoke a backlash by radical religious groups. This might lead the minister to lose his position.
Cinema, theater and the arts in general did not receive any official encouragement from former President Ali Abdallah Saleh. As far as we know, Saleh never opened a fine-arts exhibition, nor did he meet artists. On the other hand, he was fond of opera. He used to personally oversee the organization of opera performances that would glorify his reign, spending millions on them. However, these shows did not live for long in the minds of the people. The performances became repetitive, boring and uncreative, and soon, the president himself lost interest in them.
Yemen, like other Arab countries, used to be represented by a single individual — the president. If the president had cared about cinema and been supportive of the art, many steps would have been taken in this regard. However, it seems that he preferred not to meddle in this industry out of fear of the threat it could pose to his regime. Indeed, films portray promises of a better life to and a new kind of artistic, moral behavior.
I wish Yemen had its own film industry. Film could have stood witness to the disasters and the real destruction taking place on the ground.
Yemen is witnessing turmoil, revolution and mobilization in the south and north. There is also widespread anger because of government corruption, authoritarianism, the power of terrorism, the spread of extremist religious thought and a population that is threatened by imminent famine.
There is no hope of the film industry receiving support, especially at this stage. And there is no hope in the so-called civil society or the private-sector institutions and organizations. No side will take the initiative to support the Yemeni cinema and contribute to its birth as long as the former and new president and the rest of the regime do not want it. But there is a ray of hope in Badr al-Harasi’s film. We hope that a new art, in theater and cinema, might be born during the current transitional period.
Yemeni artists are suffering; they are living in misery and complete frustration. They are required to act like puppets with limited creativity in order to make a living. They are also required to direct their talents toward praising the regime or a political party during official events, on which the regime spends extravagantly and attends with its entourage, while the people suffer from hunger, disease, ignorance, war and disintegration.
These themes have begun to appear in some drama and comedy series in Yemen in recent years, but their appearance does not indicate artistic freedom of the cinema in Yemen.
I hope that the Yemeni cinema industry will be able to progress as part of the current stage being witnessed by the country. I hope to see advances made in terms of creativity, the introduction of new faces and increased support for the film-making techniques, including cultural, artistic, social, economic and scientific development. However, the Yemeni people, including all segments in the north and south, will be content to remain captive to these conditions.
There are signs of a comprehensive revolution in Yemen, and it may have an effect on this sector in particular. If this is the case, many people’s hopes regarding the birth of a cinema industry and the blooming of an artist culture will be revived. Cinema and art in general will no longer remain under the umbrella of premeditated governmental plans to maintain the status quo, or even make it worse.