March 18 was the third anniversary of what Yemeni “peaceful youth” call the Jum‘at al-Karama massacre, the day in 2011 when snipers opened fire on Friday of Dignity protesters in the space they had begun to call Midan al-Taghyir (Change Square). By the next day, more than 50 unarmed demonstrators lay dead.
As in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir three years ago and Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014, trigger-happy security forces not only failed to quell dissent in public squares but actually galvanized popular outrage and elite defections from the regime.
One of the outcomes of the Yemeni uprising has been an extraordinary efflorescence of artistic and intellectual production. Revolutionary filmmaking has surged, bringing images from the Yemeni uprising to international audiences.
On March 15, the Yemen Peace Project presented the DC showing of the First International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. The festival, which has traveled to Los Angeles and New York, and is planning openings in London, Aden and Sanaa, featured the Oscar-nominated short film Karama Has No Walls by Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq, in addition to nine other films, a photographic exhibit and a panel discussion.
As Yemen Peace Project executive director Will Picard explained, heretofore there were almost no outlets for artists and filmmakers in Yemen. Indeed, the few movie theaters have almost all shut down. Picard compared Yemen’s nascent cinema industry to that of Iran several decades ago, optimistically projecting that high interest in Karama and international sympathy for Yemen’s ongoing struggle would boost film production.
Several other films were featured. Filmmaker Ammar Basha documented Change Square in 2011 but also zeroed in on humanitarian crises beyond Sanaa. Days in the Heart of the Revolution: Hudaydah highlights the desperation of fishermen along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, a historically impoverished community eking out a living from catches snared with handmade nets or from wooden boats. Industrial-scale Chinese and Egyptian companies have decimated fish populations and forced fishermen to poach from Eritrean waters, often resulting in their indefinite imprisonment. His other mini-documentary, Days in the Heart of the Revolution: The South gives visual testimony to devastation wrought by counter-terror operations — including US drone attacks — against al-Qaeda in Abyan province, focusing on the plight of those internally displaced by the violence. Local people appeal to Basha’s camera to provide a platform for their appeals for aid from at home or abroad.
A sweet five-minute snippet, The Big House, starring Yaseen Mansour, produced by Ahlam Said and written/directed by Musa Syeed, portrays the awe of a little boy who finds his way into the home of deposed dictator ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. The Big House was a Sundance Festival selection.
The event at GWU also featured expert commentary. A panel featuring analyst Sama’a al-Hamdani, journalist Laura Kasinof and the press attaché at the Yemeni embassy, Mohamed Albasha, put the films in political context. Al-Hamdani, who continues to write about artists’ political projects defying political violence, described how the emotional wrench of Karama Has No Walls is made worse by the fear that the protesters who sacrificed their lives may have died in vain. “There is a sense of despair now, because nothing is different, and some things are worse,” she explained.
Kasinof pointed out that films like Karama are important because political actors have since attempted to exploit the protests for their own aims. “Footage in Karama proves that government security forces were present at the violence” on March 18, 2011, although later the government tried to lay blame on defectors, she said. “After that day, people started to use protesters for their own agendas. The independent voice in Yemen has been squashed by the powers that be. This is still happening today.”
Amal Basha, a nationally prominent human rights activist, mother of filmmaker Ammar Basha, and participant in the National Dialogue Conference, was asked by an audience member to comment on her experience. Basha sadly explained that the dialogue process had required many sacrifices by those devoted to Yemen’s national interest, especially when trying to work with actors committed to narrower, personal interests. “Think about the scenario in Syria,” she said with irony, “and imagine it worse, because we have more weapons.” As the films and discussion highlighted, southern secession and civil war with the Houthi movement remain distinct possibilities.
Yet activists and artists project hope. Despite Yemen’s dire circumstances, the festival itself might serve as a vehicle for empowerment. As al-Hamdani tweeted during the event, five of the festival’s six photographers were female, and four of the eight directors were Yemeni women. These facts alone fly in the face of stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, the GWU festival was oversold, and additional chairs had to be brought in. One might hope that future Yemeni film festivals will depict happier times.