Like many young men from my village, I left Raymah to pursue my university studies in Sana’a. Living with my uncle’s family, I relished every opportunity to watch Bollywood films with my cousin whenever he took me to the Bilqis Cinema at al-Tahrir Square. The vibrant images on the big screen, together with the rich sounds of Dolby stereo, transported me to another world.
That was more than twenty years ago. I have loved going to the movies ever since, even though my family, like many in Yemen, frowns upon this pastime that is seen as contrary to traditional values of modesty.
Cinema arrived in Yemen more than a century ago when films were first shown in Aden in 1918. By the 1980s, the number of movie theatres around the country grew to nearly 50. Arabic and international films were regularly screened in Sana’a, Mukalla, Taiz, and Hodeida, in addition to Aden.
These films provide a lucid roadmap to coexistence.”
But the first feature-length film produced in Yemen wasn’t released until 2005. A New Day in Old Sana’a, a romantic drama about a young woman from a working-class family and a man from a notable tribe, makes a case for the renunciation of class differences and highlights the aesthetics of an ancient city that celebrates a culture of diversity and coexistence.
In this offering by British-Yemeni director Bader Ben Hirsi, the couple’s love prevails over familial pressure and an entire community that scorns their relationship. Opening with the call to morning prayer that echoes from centuries-old minarets, the film departs from conservative tradition by portraying self-reliant women working outside the home. It was named best Arabic-language film at the Cairo International Film Festival, and it was the first Yemeni offering to be screened in Cannes the following year.
Subsequent Yemeni films have also achieved global recognition, including I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced. This 2014 film that addresses forced early marriage is based on director Khadija al-Salami’s own experience as a child bride. Killing Her Is a Ticket to Paradise, al-Salami’s 2013 documentary, profiles Yemeni writer and political activist Bushra al-Maqtari, who was accused of blasphemy following a fatwa signed by 70 religious scholars in response to her work. Karama Has No Walls, a 2013 documentary by Sara Ishaq about Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising, was the first Yemeni film nominated for an Oscar.
Despite immense difficulties in the cinema sector, war has not deterred Yemeni filmmakers from their efforts to portray their country to the wider world. Other recent releases include Ten Days Before the Wedding, a 2018 drama directed by Amr Gamal about the difficulties of marriage amid armed conflict; Yemen: The Silent War, released the same year, is a documentary by Sufian Abulohom on displaced Yemenis living in refugee camps and shelters.
These films provide a lucid roadmap to coexistence through stories that compel Yemenis to reflect on issues that shape their lives. Despite others’ long-standing reservations about movie theatres, I believe in the power and potential of cinema to challenge a society’s beliefs, raise awareness and offer new perspectives.