A group of children play a game of football on a roof; as the camera pulls away we realize the roof is slanted, sitting at a steep angle atop a collapsed building in Taiz, Yemen. It is an image of destruction, joy and strange beauty.
“We lost a lot but now we’re trying not to lose more,” says the narrator of the short film Carroom, which features this scene.
The film was screened as part of the Karama Human Rights Film Festival, which ran from December 7 to 12 in Amman. The festival is organized by the Jordanian cultural collaborative Ma3mal 612 (“Factory 612”) and supported by the Jordanian Ministry of Culture, the United Nations, various European embassies, and others.
The festival—which features short, feature, fiction and animation films from across the region—celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Its premise, the festival director, Sawsan Darwazah, said during a speech, is that film allows us “to peek into the lives of our fellow humans,” to “witness each other’s perspectives and feel each other’s pain,” and that this can be a force for positive social change.
“Arts and culture are really important. … We need to give these young people a hope.”-Nasser Almang
Head of the nongovernmental group Yemen Will Triumph
Earlier this year, an edition of the festival was held for the first time in Yemen, in collaboration with the nongovernmental group Yemen Will Triumph. Another edition is planned there in 2020, and the event in Amman featured a showcase of Yemeni films and a discussion with some of the directors.
In the Yemeni documentary film The Last Resort, the protagonist obtains a fake medical certificate and takes a two-day bus ride to one of the country’s only working airports, in the hope of traveling to a job interview—but his passport isn’t considered valid. A short fictional film imagined a young Yemeni inventor who is able to teleport himself out of his war-bound existence.
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Other films included a celebration of love and freedom between children; a stripped-down war story featuring two men lost in the desert; the experience of a young woman living outside Yemen and anxiously thinking of home; and a reflection on how Yemen and Yemenis are perceived by the world today, titled Pathetic.
The director of that film, Mohammad Moussa, explained to me that filming in Yemen requires training actors and film crews first. There are no film schools in the country, but plenty of talent, he said. There are also no cinemas, but films can be shown in private halls, although frequent electricity cuts are a challenge for screenings.
And filming itself can be dangerous and difficult. People respond to the presence of a film crew in one of two ways, Moussa said. “Some people are afraid: ‘Who are you, what are you filming? You may cause us another, new problem.’ The other group just laughs and asks: ‘Why are you making a movie in Yemen? Are you a big American producer? There’s no point’ in doing this here.”
Nasser Almang, head of Yemen Will Triumph, estimated that his organization had trained almost 70 aspiring filmmakers in the last three years.
“We really encourage the Yemeni filmmakers and artists to continue their work, even with limited resources and equipment, to deliver their voice,” he said.
The group also supports fist-time filmmakers with small grants. International donors are understandably focused on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Almang said, but his organization argues that “arts and culture are really important. … We need to give these young people a hope.”
‘Our Films Can’t Stop the War’
At the end of the Yemeni film screenings in Amman, there was a lively discussion that touched on whether the filmmakers had a responsibility to convey a more positive, less miserable image of their country or whether, on the contrary, their films should aim to mobilize audiences.
Opinions varied, but one of the young directors responded: “The problem isn’t that people don’t know about the war in Yemen. Our films can’t stop the war. The service they provide Yemen is to tell a few of its stories—happy stories or sad stories. But my mission ends when the film ends.”
The Yemen showcase was just a small part of the Karama festival, which features a wide breadth of work. It included, for example, documentaries about an all-women soccer team in Khartoum and a boxing gym in the Baqa’a refugee camp in Jordan; about Moroccan women fighting for their right to own land and about a former jihadi raising three daughters alone in Tunis.
Fiction films, meanwhile, explored issues such as migration, disability, the right to health care, racism, and prison.
The film Maelstrom is composed of hundreds of hours of amateur footage shot by Syrians. The project I Wanted To Live is a cinematic visualization and memorial to 35,597 migrants and refugees known to have died in Europe or on its borders since 1993.
Some of the works are hard to watch, but the overall atmosphere of the festival was positive, even joyful—full of solidarity and encouragement.
The festival is affiliated with other initiatives, such as the Arab Network for Human Rights Film, and it conducts various outreach activities. A selection of the films shown in Amman has toured ten Jordanian cities this year and will visit be screened at several of the country’s universities.