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Springtime at the Berlinale: Yemen documentary stirs film festival

At the Berlin Film Festival, we talk to the British filmmaker of The Reluctant Revolutionary, a documentary on anti-government demonstrations in Yemen.

Sean McAllister directed The Reluctant Revolutionary, a documentary about protest in Yemen. J Vespa / WireImage
Sean McAllister directed The Reluctant Revolutionary, a documentary about protest in Yemen. J Vespa / WireImage

The Arab Spring has played a major role in the Berlinale so far, dominating the film festival's various competitions and even getting a mention in the opening speech. But amid the films from Egypt and discussions about Syria, opening the Panorama section was an extraordinary documentary that brought to light the situation in a country that has been largely ignored on screen.

The Reluctant Revolutionary, by Sean McAllister, sees the British filmmaker head to Yemen in early 2011 to watch events unfold. And unfold they do. Over the course of the 3 months he spent filming there, the anti-government demonstrations on the streets of Sanaa transform into a permanent and growing camp, which - after a period of peaceful protest - come under increasingly violent attack from forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Salah.

The film follows Kais, the title character, a 35-year-old tour guide operator from Sanaa. A somewhat tragic yet loveable figure, Kais is slowly watching his business fall apart and with it his marriage, with tourist numbers dwindling and debts rising because of the mounting tensions.

"You have something in your blood that tells you something is going to kick off," explains McAllister the day after the film's world premiere in Berlin. "You've got that feeling and then you're looking for a character that's got some jeopardy."

Kais, who had been recommended as a good subject by two friends, was a perfect fit: intelligent, articulate and philosophical, yet teetering on the edge of despair.

While Kais is initially sceptical about the protest movement, suggesting he prefers change through dialogue rather than Saleh's removal, McAllister encourages him to visit the camp and speak to the organisers. It is here where we watch his transformation as revolutionary bones are stirred. "I never imagined seeing rival tribes coming and sitting here in peace, without their Kalashnikovs," he says.

The violent attempts to crush the protests only pour fuel on Kais's growing inner fire. The violence also sees McAllister's stay in the country become more precarious. By now the only guest in Kais's hotel, he is constantly warned that he could be expelled at any moment, like the majority of the foreign press. The danger forces him to switch to a smaller camera, so he looks like a tourist. "But it was becoming more difficult to convince the authorities that I was a tourist. Any foreigner was obviously a journalist."

McAllister's anxieties are reflected in the film too, as we see him speak to his son, who urges him to come home, and wonder whether or not to return. The film concludes on the day now known as The Friday of Dignity, when government forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing 52. McAllister and Kais head to the hospital as the injured are being stretchered in. The scenes are horrifying, and while Kais helps with drips and bodies, a near silent McAllister tries to take it all in while "hiding behind the camera".

The documentary tracks the changes within Yemen through the eyes of a Yemeni whose opinions are being shaped each day. It is poignant in parts, yet brutally shocking in others. "Sometimes you film a massacre, which is dramatically interesting, and then you film Kais in silence," says McAllister. "And it's the power between the camera, me and him, the moments of pausing."

With headlines at the time focused on the tsunami in Japan and the events in Libya, the massacre that took place in Sanaa on March 18 was largely ignored on the world stage, something that McAllister hopes to address with The Reluctant Revolutionary.

"The great thing of this film is that it's a tribute to the [victims of the] massacre, which I think a lot of people think had been missed. Yemen was almost the forgotten revolution."

 

aritman@thenational.ae

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