This week Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq presented two films back-to-back at Zawya: Oscar-nominated Karama has no Walls and a far more interesting feature on her family, The Mulberry House.
Both films screened at Zawya on Sunday 1 February, and interestingly enough, both were made simultaneously.
Another fascinating discovery was that both films were endeavors Ishaq somehow stumbled upon, rather than projects born out of pre-determined conviction.
Born to a Yemeni father and Scottish mother, Ishaq’s parents divorced when she was young, and she stayed in Yemen with her father. She left for Scotland as a teenager following struggles to fit into Yemen’s conservative society.
Later in her life, while studying film direction at Edinburgh College of Art, her teachers encouraged her to make her graduation film about her Yemeni roots. Though not entirely convinced, she decided to make a short film about her grandfather and arrived in Sanaa just one day before the revolution started on January 27, 2011.
This changed all her plans entirely. She was taken by surprise, and ended up in her family home for six months instead of two weeks. She returned with enough footage for two entirely different yet complementary films, both of which enjoyed critical acclaim and strong runs in international festival circuits.
Karama Has No Walls: A bloody day
Karama Has No Walls is a 26-minute documentary about Yemen’s Friday of Karama (dignity) on 18 March, during the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who spent more than 33 years in power.
On that ill-fated Friday, more than 50 people were killed at the hands of the security forces when protesters gathered for a peaceful demonstration.
The film’s brilliance comes from its focus. It does not attempt to capture everything that happened. Instead, Ishaq focuses on two citizen journalists, Khaled Rajeh and Nasr El-Namir, through their footage from the front lines and interviews with them. The film also features an interview with a young martyr’s father and a portrait of a family whose child lost his eyes while getting his mother groceries near the attacks.
Karama Has No Walls is intense. It’s bloody and gruesome. The footage of the clashes, the violence and the morgue is shocking, and the interviews extremely moving. Ishaq shoots her subjects with close-ups in sharp focus, against mostly dimmed backgrounds, visually rendering their presence on screen intimate and captivating.
The main element that drove Ishaq to document Yemen’s revolution through that day in particular is the fact that although the country has the highest number of weapons per capita in the world, the protests remained peaceful. It is known as a very tribal society, with feuds part of the culture, and in the film it’s said that while the population is 25 million, there are 64 million weapons in the country.
“Everyone thought a revolution in Yemen would descend into chaos and civil war within a week,” Ishaq said at Zawya. “But it was peaceful and it continued that way.”
Initially intended as a high-quality YouTube video, the film was screened among activist networks and gained popularity when university students in Michigan started a Facebook page for it. Partly because not much was coming out of Yemen at the time, it grabbed the attention of several film festivals.
Ishaq told us that when she first got an email from the Academy Awards about being shortlisted for an Oscar in the Best Short Documentary category, she sent it to her spam box. Then she got another email which she also sent to her spam box. Eventually she got a call from one of the festivals that gave her film an award, and realized it was real.
Karama Has No Walls was nominated in 2014. Like other Arab films featured that year (Jehane Noujaim’s The Square and Hany Abu Assad’s Omar) it did not go home with an Oscar, but it did finally generate a buzz in Yemen.
It was screened on Yemeni national television — “the same state television that was downplaying the uprising,” Ishaq said. She was celebrated in Yemen as the first filmmaker to be Oscar-nominated, and a public screening in Sanaa was attended by several Yemeni officials.
Ishaq was reluctant to show the film under those circumstances. However, she decided it would be best to confront the government with what had happened that Friday. After the screening — to her surprise — the audience stood and broke into the national anthem.
The Mulberry House: Ishaq’s family and their revolution
The Mulberry House is almost entirely set in Ishaq’s family house in Sanaa. Her grandfather, father, sisters and cousins are the heroes, and we see their politicization from within their home.
The title is a reference to the trees in her grandfather’s garden, and the film begins with home video footage showing her as a child playing, as she narrates how she ended up back in Yemen to re-discover her roots and re-connect with her family.
It’s clear from the footage, and later confirmed by Ishaq, that the director had her camera on most of the time. The image is not always clear, and sometimes the sound is problematic or the camera shakes and she seemingly has a hard time seeing what to film. But the content compensates for — even compliments — the formal losses.
A family dinner at the start is filled with discussions of the role of women in society, premarital relationships and young peoples’ choices in marriage — all with a strong sense of humor. In a later dinner scene, Ishaq captures a conversation with a more political drive, highlighting the country’s charged atmosphere.
The Mulberry House covers that same Friday of Dignity from within Ishaq’s family home. Her father watches television, dismayed, her grandfather explains how corrupt the country has become, and her uncle writes a Facebook note to push for her cousin’s release from prison.
The film shows the rocky yet affectionate relationship she has with her father Habib, and the rocky yet affectionate relationship he has with his own father.
In Egypt in 2011, older generations shifted toward a newfound respect for young people. One gets the same feeling from Ishaq’s film. At the start, her father jokes about getting her married, and she even confronts him regarding an incident when she was 15 — he had agreed to a suitor for her. Later on, Habib’s eyes shine into the camera with pride at her involvement in and documentation of the revolution.
The Mulberry House proves a more interesting venture into documentary filmmaking than Karama Has No Walls because it offers a quirky, unique take on an under-reported “Arab Spring” country through focusing on day-to-day household life with revolution as backdrop. It will no doubt be relatable to many families around the region who watched events unfold on television and supported from the sidelines.
The film also successfully highlights — and not in an orientalist manner — the internal struggle over Middle Eastern roots and a European or American upbringing that many of Ishaq’s generation go through. Ishaq manages to find peace within this identity tug of war, and to those lucky enough to see the film she triumphs in transmitting this newfound peace with herself.