Cinema in Yemen must be fostered [Archives:2006/915/Culture]

January 26 2006

Ali Al-Qadhi
As a modern art mode, cinema has earned a place among the arts. It is now considered the seventh art due to its artistic significance and addition to civilization.

Though only emerging at the end of the 19th century, cinema has undergone great changes. It went through many stages during the course of its development, beginning with the silent era and the sound era up until the digital era. Now the world's body of film comprises a tremendous volume.

Yemen and the film industry

Some Yemenis think Yemen is not concerned with film production at all. They don't see Yemeni films onscreen and may not have heard of a Yemeni film at all. Films they view come from Arab and foreign countries, mostly Egypt, Europe and America.

Two Yemeni films recently attracted international attention. “A New Day in Old Sana'a,” directed by Yemeni Badr bin Hirsi, tells the story of a young man who shuns the bride chosen by his family and decides to marry a low-class girl. The film won the Cairo International Film Festival's grand prize and received accolades from viewers at the recent Dubai International Film Festival.

The second film, a documentary directed by Yemeni Khadeeja Al-Salami, follows one day in the life of a little girl wanting to lead a normal life in a society constrained by iron-clad do's and don'ts. It also was highly appreciated and screened in many countries worldwide.

These two films cast doubt on what some might call Yemeni creative infertility in film production. Both, filmed in Sana'a, have been hailed by the community of critics.

Such success begs a quick look at some observations about Yemeni cinema. These two particular films trigger the question, “Why shouldn't we have organized activity, with sustainable and well-studied output, instead of occasional flukes?” Yemen is rich in creative citizens willing to outperform their foreign peers.

A cinema authority

“No country can claim to have any cultural activity whatsoever without cinema,” computer specialist Dr. Hamdan Dammaj said. He said cinema is important because it mixes culture with entertainment.

One may be surprised to learn that there actually is a governmental body in charge of cinema affairs. It does double duty, as its title suggests, “The Yemeni Theater and Cinema Corp. (YTCC).”

YTCC officer and scenarist Abdu Rabbu Al-Haithami said the problem is “insufficient funds.” He claimed the whole organization is allotted 40 million Riyals annually to cover wages of hundreds of employees, rental premises, etc. “If the average single film minute costs $5,000, how can we possibly produce films with our slim budget?”

Funding seems to be a persistent problem for those wanting to produce films. The director of “A New Day in Old Sana'a” complained of government's unfulfilled promises. “When we began filming, things started to go wrong. The money we were promised by the ministry was cut from $200,000 to $80,000 and then to $40,000,” he stated.

YTCC has a cinema lab but using it to produce films requires a larger budget. Al-Haithami suggested the private sector get involved in producing films as they are important to foster national culture and promote tourism.

According to Al-Haithami, the first Yemeni film was, “From Hut to Palace,” produced in Aden in the 1970s and directed by Ja'far Mohammed Ali. He noted that some 45 documentaries have been produced throughout Yemeni cinema history. However, he complained that the YTCC has no role in even selecting the good from what should be imported and featured for the public. “We can use good things from abroad. There are nice films that have cultural value and are worth screening, but we have to select carefully,” he said.

Yemeni cinema houses

Many people used to regard cinema houses as 'suspicious' places for only revelers and those of 'lax moral fabric.' To the typical Yemeni, cinema was stained with a 'taboo' color due to the fact that many cinemagoers sought X-rated movies, which are unacceptable in a conservative society.

Not many educated people attended the cinema, perhaps because they already knew it was too meager to feed them intellectually. Some also objected to cinemas from a religious aspect.

“An observer of the situation may think there is some sort of taboo against the cinema. Nobody can confirm nor deny this,” Dammaj said. “Yet, there is no feasible reason why Yemen shouldn't have a cinema, while there is more controversial entertainment such as night clubs.”

Bin Hirsi confirmed this during filming in Old Sana'a, where he faced harassment by a religious group. After a two-day negotiation, they read the film's script and demanded certain amendments. “We agreed because they were superficial,” he said.

Sana'a has only four cinemas: Hadda, Khaleda, Bilqis and Ahlia. Visiting the Hadda Street cinema complex, one would be astounded at the miserably degraded situation of the twin cinema houses. Walking across the front yard, there are broken gates and the place is littered with garbage. One may question the reason for such appalling conditions.

Akram, 25, who keeps an internet cafe on the other side of the yard, still remembers when it vibrated with life and was filled with people shouting and screaming as they queued to see a movie.

He told of ownership disputes over the closed-down cinema houses. “They are sorting out things and settling the row,” he noted. However, he recalled the two cinemas closed after customer numbers dropped sharply. “There was nothing of quality and they started screening old films repetitively so people got fed up. Most films were commercial and action-oriented, whereas local movies, of course, were absent.”

Dammaj narrated a story about entering a cinema in the small town of Yarim in 1987. “It was a kind of a mess, a primitive cinema. As I entered, I stumbled into a pit. I realized later that it was nothing but a dark, humble coffee shop making use of its wall and serving tea.”

He ironically compared the 1987 Yarim cinema and 2006 Sana'a cinemas. “It is laughable that in 2006, Sana'a has only one and a half cinemas, as my friend says,” Dammaj said, suggesting the cinemas should have been improved by now.

He still remembers going to the cinema a lot before leaving 12 years ago to study in the UK. “Hadda and Khaleda cinemas used to be very good when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “They used to show the latest international and Arab movies, but then they followed the system of Bilqis and Ahlia cinemas, showing two old films for one ticket.”

Media revolution

Abdul-Nasser Al-Wali, 38, attributed the desertion of Sana'a cinema houses to the proliferation of digital dishes, DVDs, CDs and the internet. “These media have provided audiences an infinite range of choices and entertainment sources. They now can see most recent films and blockbusters soon after production, either on DVD or through any of the numerous space channels, some of which are dedicated solely to movies.”

However, he noted that only one capital cinema has survived the fatal inundation. “Al-Ahlia is trying to bring the most recent movies to its limited public and this is why it still is running,” he added.

These cinema houses mostly thrived on commercial movies and didn't address artistic considerations of other audiences. They eventually were whacked good. It may not be their fault for not contributing to the national film industry or enriching artistic appreciation of worthy productions. Nevertheless, their deterioration is symbolic of the dissatisfactory condition of Yemeni cinema in general.

Of course, Yemen shouldn't dream of competing with Hollywood, but it has the resources to establish a cinema sector that can best represent Yemen and create a national alternative to the below-quality alien materials. External competition may not be possible either. However, Yemen first must hold a footing in this realm and stop being a passive recipient of others' works.

Nowadays, cinema has undergone great developments. There are crystal displays and, thanks to high technology, viewers now can smell gunpowder and perfume. Computers and cutting-edge software have played a role in establishing a very modern mode of cinema and creating human-like fictional heroes, thereby minimizing production costs considerably and giving birth to jaw dropping movies.

In a paper presented to Al-Afif Cultural Foundation, Al-Haithami set forth his improvement proposals. The package includes establishing cinema industry infrastructure and restructuring the YTCC so it implements projects independently. He also suggested procuring modern programs, training staff to use them, as well as introducing cinema technology and other requirements. Most importantly, the cinema sector should not be government's responsibility alone. The private sector has a duty to create a robust cinema for the good of the entire community.