Cross Cultural Filmmaking in Yemen
Bader Ben Hirsi could make quite a screenplay out of his experience directing the first feature film ever made in Yemen, the ancient land at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. His results though, have impressed the Arab world, who are bound to be his sternest critics. Ben Hirsi's film has just scooped the Grand Prize at the Cairo Film Festival. James MacGregor, who has spent many years in the Middle East has been following Bader Ben Hirsi's story and the making of A New Day in Old Sana'a.
The British-Yemeni director had to overcome many obstacles to make his bittersweet romantic film, A New Day In Old Sana'a: an actor was stabbed when an Iraqi attacked several Europeans, protests by Islamic fundamentalists, government censorship, and a steady barrage of attacks in some newspapers and mosque sermons accusing the director of being everything from a pornographer to a CIA agent.
"I knew it was going to be difficult filming in Yemen ... which is a traditional country, very rich in its customs. ... It's afraid of change, but it's rapidly changing and people are more aware of what's happening in the world now," said the 38-year-old Ben Hirsi, interviewed before his film's New York premiere in April at the Alwan Film Festival, which presented more than 30 films from across the Arab world, Iran and South Asia.
"There were people who were trying to sabotage the film from the very first day ... They were a noisy minority and they gave us hell every single day," said Ben Hirsi, who speaks with a British accent. "We were very afraid and had to look over our shoulders."
Festival director Ahmed Issawi says Ben Hirsi belongs to a new generation of Arab directors who have turned away from nationalist themes to tell more personal stories that also touch on larger social issues.
"Now the narrative has changed to addressing universal notions of love, despair, and given the nature of societies now immigration and how does tradition find its place in a very mobile world," said Issawi, a board member of Alwan for the Arts, the non-profit cultural group which organized the festival.
Ben Hirsi was born and educated in Britain, where his royalist family fled after a revolution in the 1960s deposed the monarchy in what was then known as North Yemen. An older sister was married to the former king.
Ben Hirsi, who began his career as a theater director, turned to documentary filmmaking in 1999 when he made the award-winning The English Sheikh & The Yemeni Gentleman, describing his first visit to his ancestral homeland.
After the 2001 terror attacks, as an Arabic-speaking filmmaker, he found himself in demand to make such documentaries as 9/11 Through Saudi Eyes featuring exclusive interviews with the families and friends of the suspected hijackers and Yemen & the War on Terror.
But Ben Hirsi grew dissatisfied making documentaries he felt were too sensationalistic. He wanted to direct feature films so he could present a different perspective on Arab culture to Western audiences.
When Yemen's capital, San'a, was selected as the 2004 Cultural Capital of the Arab World, Ben Hirsi thought the opportunity ripe to get government approval for the country's first feature film.
That wasn't easy, because Yemeni officials had been wary about allowing any feature film to be shot on location ever since the controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed several scenes for his 1974 Arabian Nights in Old San'a without telling Yemenis it would have graphic sex.
Ben Hirsi wrote a screenplay about a young photographer, Tariq, from an aristocratic family who realizes that the woman he has fallen in love with is not the spoiled daughter of a judge his family has chosen for him to marry, but rather a lower-class orphan who makes her living as a munagasher, or henna body painter. He then must make the life-altering choice between respecting tradition by going through with the arranged marriage or risk an unknown fate by running off with his true love.
Ben Hirsi's screenplay got approval from the Ministry of Culture, which eventually gave him a $40,000 subsidy. Most of the film's $1.4 million budget came from Yemeni businesses.
Yemen had no cinema industry, so tons of equipment and key technical specialists had to be brought in from abroad. It took months to cast the film and train Yemeni actors whose only experience had been in theatre and television.
Ben Hirsi found it especially difficult to find young actresses to play the lead female roles because they worried that appearing in the film might hurt their marriage prospects. A Lebanese actress was eventually cast as the orphan.
Just weeks before shooting was to begin, he had to find a last-minute replacement for a main character when the Austrian actor cast for the part was stabbed by an Iraqi who attacked several Europeans in San'a following the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.
On the first day of shooting in February 2004, a mob of Islamic fundamentalists stormed the set and stopped production, demanding to know what Ben Hirsi was doing.
"I said. `I'm making a film,' and they said, `We don't want those films in Yemen,'" Ben Hirsi recalled. "And I said, `You can't speak for Yemen. I'm Yemeni, the actors are Yemeni and the funding is Yemeni.'" Several dozen soldiers had to guard the film crew to prevent further disruptions.
Ben Hirsi got caught up in political intrigue when rival factions used the film to discredit members of the government. Some newspapers, Web sites and at least one prominent imam targeted the director, making unsubstantiated accusations that he was embezzling funds, filming pornography in mosques, and serving as an agent for the CIA and Israel's Mossad.
Nervous government officials watched the film shoot and kept demanding changes in the approved script, forcing the director to sneak in some shots during lunch breaks to evade the censors. Members of parliament demanded that Ben Hirsi show them tapes of what he was filming.
When the film was finally finished, the Minister of Culture decided to bar the film from public release in the handful of cinemas in San'a because he feared the controversy might hurt his position. However, the film was shown in November as the British entry in an annual festival of European films at a San'a cultural center.
The film had its international premiere in December at the Cairo International Film Festival, where it took the prize for best Arab film, upsetting the favored contenders from Egypt.
Ben Hirsi hopes his experience will encourage other Arab filmmakers, particularly in the more conservative Gulf countries with little in the way of a cinema tradition. He's seen other young directors who were trained in Europe or North America returning home to make films despite the difficulties.
"There's a new wave of Arab film," he said, "a new and very exciting style and things are changing."
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