Ammar Basha is a Yemeni filmmaker. His documentary films include Breaking the Silence, about the discrimination faced by working women of African descent in Yemen, and a series called Days in the Heart of the Revolution, about the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Breaking the Silence took second prize at the Women Voices Now film festival in Los Angeles in 2010. The latter series was screened at the International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival in Berkeley, Washington, London and Sanaa. Basha also makes feature films. His short The Last Hour (for which he was also sound designer) won awards from Zayid University in Abu Dhabi and at the Tehran International Short Film Festival. He also runs the YouTube channel “Thawrat Shabab,” where the Days series can be found.
What is your background?
I am one of the luckiest filmmakers in Yemen, being a graduate of the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, which was founded by King ‘Abdallah of Jordan and Steven Spielberg himself, with professors from the University of Southern California. At this institute in ‘Aqaba, my eyes were opened to a larger world of filmmaking, cinematic arts and industry. With that came big dreams, like starting a film industry here in Yemen.
I admit that I am living two lives. One is in that dream of entering world cinema; the other is the life of the activist, in the midst of important historical events, who is good only with a camera. I believe my films are my contribution as a Yemeni to the revolution. It feels like a duty.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary format in conveying “the truth” about major historical events?
Can showing 10 percent of the truth be “the truth”? I realize that I am hiding and cutting footage, sometimes of shocking stories and facts, more than I am showing or publishing. After growing in understanding the complexity of the changes in the Yemeni regime, I believe I am better able to help the poor, broken citizens who appear in front of my camera. I need to be quiet with the films’ message. Rather than pointing fingers at villains and corrupt persons, which seems to be the style of many television networks, I seek to call on what is left of the goodness in people to help those in need.
For me, it is like recording these moments or events will tell parts of “the truth” to a new generation looking back many years from now. My last film in the series, “Sixth Day,” was completed three months ago. It takes me four to six months to recover from the trauma each film causes me. I am hoping to keep producing these shorts, though. Maybe if each film contains 10 percent of “the truth,” a dozen of them could be the truth. Maybe.
You’ve also worked on animated and live-action feature films. Is such entertainment also a way of “giving voice” or conveying humanitarian “truth”?
Fiction is more challenging than the documentary format. But it also gives you more control over how you set up and tell a story. That means you have power. Only ethics and a small budget can stop the fictionalized format from becoming a destructive tool. And when it comes to “the truth,” again the question of how much truth you are willing to show pops up. There is more to fiction than showing the truth, though, because you can paint the future, share a few better ideas for building a civilized world. Fiction can be a painkiller for people who are running out of imagination or hope.
There must be many challenges to cinematography in Yemen these days. Can you explain some of the challenges involved in making and releasing even short films?
You mean the challenges involved in producing a film? Because running around with a handheld D60 Canon camera shooting with a stupid 18 to 200mm lens — I wouldn’t call that cinematography, if you know what I mean.
There is a long list of obstacles in front of making films in Yemen, but the real challenge is the eternal fight between institutionalized media organizations and independent filmmakers. Since the start of the revolution in Yemen, almost ten new TV channels have opened shop. Each is owned by a different political party, which uses its channel to outrage public opinion about the actions of another party or key international players. They have the money and power to do whatever they please.
Independent filmmakers, meanwhile, face many difficulties. Unless they are hired for jobs by NGOs, independents are by themselves in a society that does not understand the value of filmmaking and what it can do. It is very important that we have more balance between the contenders. New laws, professional training, public awareness campaigns, planning and serious fundraising are all needed to help make meaningful films. But remaining independent is a challenge in and of itself.
For example, whenever I start to create a Day in the Heart of the Revolution short, in which I try show the concerns of ordinary Yemenis (the thing that the institutionalized media is “ashamed” to broadcast), it is a challenge to raise funds, to convince another filmmaker to help for free, and to find honest, independent local guides (when I visit different cities) who don’t bring partisan agendas to the table and don’t falsify information. It takes a mix of focus and luck.
You’ve taken your camera from Change Square in Sanaa at the height of the 2011 peaceful youth uprising to several relatively remote, impoverished communities. How do you choose the main characters through which your films tell their story?
Days in the Heart of the Revolution is a special case. I confess that I have broken all the laws of filmmaking in making this series. I decided to film “revolutionary” squares in different cities. In the squares, people frequently approached me wanting to tell their stories — we hadn’t heard or known about the stories in advance. The time for editing the footage is what filmmakers call “killing a baby,” because we often have to cut scenes that are very dear to us.
But before all that, I decide which part of Yemen needs discovering, then make phone calls to get locals to guide me to the places they think I should see. It is mostly me who does the work and prays to God that it will go well. And with a little help and contributions from family and friends these films come to life. My next goal for the series is “Seventh Day in the Heart of the Revolution: Black Gold,” which will be shot in Hadramawt, an oil-producing region in the far southeast of Yemen. More than a thousand days have passed since the revolution started in 2011. With my basic resources I have only been able to capture six of them.
How do fishermen, farmers and others beyond the main protest venues react to your questions and the camera? Do they relate completely to the issues raised by youth protesters in cities?
Some of them are eager to speak — even to shout out loud. Others are tired and have given up speaking about their problems in front of the camera. They have stood in front of many cameras, and nothing has changed in their lives. Some people, in fact, live in fear of the camera because unprofessional TV networks exposed them to their enemies or to those in power who can harm them. But once they learn the nature of my films they let go of their fear. After making six films, in fact, I can state with confidence that the revolution should have started long ago, even if all that ordinary people seek is a normal, peaceful life. The youth revolution was the spark that will grow to end the darkness in Yemen.
In 2014 Yemeni politics are in a state of flux. The dramatic “days of revolution” seem like a long time ago. Is there room for activist filmmaking now? How can video convey a sense of unfolding events that lack a central stage like Change Square?
The kids — the 75 percent of the protesters under the age of 25 — all knew one thing at the start of the revolution. All were driven by anger and frustration over corruption and the absence of justice. The young generation camped in the squares for over two years, and many souls were killed. They kicked out ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, and then they went home, leaving the same parties in control of Yemen’s future. But I don’t think it is over yet. The new generation is too smart to fall for the tricks of the political parties and the international players. And they learn very quickly. The old people in power will run out of tricks sooner or later. The youth will have grown older, and if nothing has changed or improved, there you go, another revolution in the coming ten years. So yes, there is a place for activist filmmakers to play an important role, to keep making films that will serve as a guide to what went wrong and what was important to focus on. I am betting on that.