x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker chronicles revolution

Sara Ishaq set out to make a film about her family, but ended up capturing the 2011 uprising in Yemen instead.

The Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq filming her documentary Fatherland.
The Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq filming her documentary Fatherland.

Growing up in Sanaa, Sara Ishaq never saw a film on screen in Yemen's capital.

But her fascination with observing human behaviour propelled her to film school in her mother's native Scotland, where she decided to chronicle her family on camera back in Yemen. In late 2010, after being out of the country for several years, she booked a flight to Yemen for February 18 last year.

"I got to Yemen and the next day the revolution kicked off," Ishaq, 28, says.

Grabbing her camera, the slender Ishaq became a regular at Sanaa's Change Square during the mass uprisings last year. Her record of the revolution appears in Karama Has No Walls, a documentary focused on a single day - March 18, last year - when more than 50 people were killed. The film, now travelling to festivals, is a sign of Yemen's emerging cinematic scene that's projecting the country on to the big screen, even when cinemas there have long been shuttered. For Ishaq, the revolution reigned in a "culture of expression" as people dived into the arts. It also spawned openings of expression in private spheres, as Ishaq explores in her next project, the "mini-revolution" that unfolded within her family in tandem with the country's course.

In Karama, Ishaq presents a layered narrative of the day known as Jumaat Al-Karama (Friday of Dignity). Two fathers, one who lost his son and another whose son became blinded that day, highlight the personal toll of the attack. Two cameramen, who were at the square and whose footage is intermixed in the film, convey the chaos. Jittery camera shots show towering plumes of smoke, security forces in fatigue and blood-stained streets.

"I didn't want it to be a political film. I didn't want it to go into the details of who did it," Ishaq says, although it's attributed to pro-government snipers. "I was more interested in [the fact that] people are killing their own people."

Instead of retreating, protesters are seen hurtling toward the bullets. As one of her subjects puts it: "The tragedy of that day changed Yemen's history forever", with the shock of the violence inducing a measure of unity for the revolution.

The square also became a fount of creativity, convincing Ishaq that she wasn't alone. "It brought us all together," she says. "So now, the first thing I associate with Yemen and being in Yemen is art and filmmaking."

But she says they don't have spaces to meet and create. "I think there is a window," with the present interest in art, she says. "If we don't do something about it now, it will dwindle." One of her priorities for the next year is establishing an arts and culture centre where they can hone their passions and where she hopes to have a place to screen films.

Meanwhile, at home, Ishaq kept her camera on her family as previously taboo subjects and views became fair game thanks to the revolution. Her grandfather and other relatives sparred over the role of women, the security situation and politics. "It was just like this amazing microcosm of what was happening in society," she says.

While she bankrolled Karama on her own, she's received some funding for the documentary on her family's transformation from the Beirut-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and has two experienced producers on board. She's currently in Cairo for the film's post-production, under the working title Fatherland.

For Yemen's film industry, Ishaq sees her example as just part of what's to come.

"I was able to make a film that was internationally recognised," she says. "If that's me, as an individual - no money, nothing, a woman - I'm going against the culture and against society, and the government and all this stuff, and if one person can do it, then of course as a collective, we can make huge change."


Karama Has No Walls screens at the United Nations Association Film Festival in San Francisco, US, tomorrow and at the Document 10 International Human Rights Film Festival in Glasgow, UK, on Saturday.