(Originally posted in Yemen Today Magazine)
Oceans away from the glamour and pizzazz of Hollywood, in stone-built ground floors decorated with Qumariyah windows (geometric colored pattern windows), some of Yemen’s most promising filmmakers create their films, bring imagination to life and create a world of art. Scattered between bakeries and other residential homes, a young man in a “futa” and a long button down shirt stood in front of a gated door. Ammar Basha, one of Yemen’s finest young filmmakers greeted me in his home.
Ammar has already produced 4 international winning short films, both fiction and documentary winning films such as The Last Hour and Breaking the Silence. Now Ammar is working on a major feature fiction film.
These awards are all the more impressive considering the quality of the competition and the lack of basic facilities, institutions, trained technicians, and the necessary freedoms of movement for a full local film industry to develop in Yemen.
Yemeni filmmaking began in earnest within the cultural, political, and artistic Yemeni revolutions of the 1960s. Early productions came out from southern Yemen, from travelogues and documentaries covering the revolutionaries and their activities. These early works sought to contribute not only to the Yemeni liberation struggle, but also to a political-aesthetic being undertaken globally by a handful of engaged and inspired filmmakers, representing an important passage of artistic communication between the Yemeni revolution and rudiments of the art world.
Basha originally started with animation films then moved onto making documentary films because he wanted to make a change “even if it were impossible” he says. During the 2011 Yemeni revolution Basha began a series called “Days of the Revolution” under a Youtube channel “Thawrat Shabab” with a subtitle “Voice to the Voiceless”. There were many stories to be told, and an increasing number of filmmakers to tell them, and high-quality, lower-cost technology with which we can tell them so although Basha didn’t have all the funding he needed to do a fill on documentary film, he began Thawrat Shabab “I don’t claim to be the “voice” of the voiceless but [I] created Thawrat Shabab as a platform for those that have been ignored for years to share why they are taking to the streets. I hear their stories. I record and I go back home and deliver it in a way that I know and that’s through film and media. I try to show what needs to be known; a humanitarian agenda rather than political. Being a Yemeni and in the revolution the main kicker for me was that I knew there were stories not being heard by mainstream media, if I wasn’t a filmmaker I might have been a graphic designer I wouldn’t have gone far.”
Basha ascribes his talents to his time spent studying at the Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts in Aqaba, Jordan. “I realized there was a responsibility, that it was more of a calling, not just a way to make money and it wasn’t about being famous either, it was more like telling important stories. If done well, you can affect people.” But Basha does not wish to continue with documentary films “The ideas I have [for film] are for an international audience not for a typical conservative society which is where our society is right now in Yemen. This is what I’m trying to do with fiction films.” But there is a very special feeling he gets from his “Days of the revolution” videos “They speak from the heart. I don’t play with the editing or coloring or manipulate the videos, I let the people speak from their heart and together we consider the security risks and what can be done with the video. It wasn’t about capturing a “cool” shot, it was about telling a human story and delivering it to the world. With this project, I traveled around and I witnessed the destruction in Sanaa, Aden, Hodeidah, Taiz, Abyan and I delivered their voices.” His Youtube channel is under another name because according to Basha “it serves another purpose.” Basha does not want people to believe that all he can do is advocacy and documentary films. “It felt like a duty because I know how to use a camera and the world needed to know what was going on in Yemen, so when I started filming for the revolution I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do I just wanted to shoot as many videos as I could but while I was editing I realized there was a power in doing one day films, so these videos are people stories and throughout the series you witness the full cycle “the peak of when the everyone was there, then when it got dominated by political parties, and when the tents were forcibly taken out and where people are today.”
Basha views life as his leading mentor and Yemeni filmmakers and the Korean film industry as people and things he is inspired by. And like any “traditional” director, Basha doesn’t give away his secrets. Instead he conveys his passion for film while providing little information about directors who influenced him along the way. What emerges amid the many wonderful shots of his films is charisma rarely found in Yemeni films, he lives to surprise and amaze others. Film isn’t just a hobby or business to Basha, it’s a way of life and you’ll be lucky if you can join his posse.
What ultimately disappoints about film in Yemen is how little attempt there is to giving rebirth to the film culture that once lived in the heart of this country. There is passing news about films made in Yemen, for instance Ammar says “40 feature films have been made in Hadramout but do you hear about them internationally? No, do you even hear about them in the north [in Sanaa] the capital?” In comparison to Jordan, there is The Royal Film Commission (RFC) which has helped the country establish a film industry and a safety net for independent filmmakers. The RFC has placed laws that protect producers which has in return opened door for filmmakers in terms of gaining international support, contracts, creating new jobs in the industry and helping with copyright issues. “ There are many problems that independent filmmakers face, for instance, if one of your characters is drinking a coke in one of your scenes, you can’t use the logo without taking clearance from Coca-cola, so when international films from developing countries go to the festivals and Oscars, many times they are pushed out because of small issues like that, it can be logos or soundtracks not cleared or something along those lines happen.” He pauses. “There is a lot to be done. We need to create a cultural center where we can assist Yemenis in their passion so Yemen can play a leading cultural role, it is beneficial not just culturally but economically, regionally and internationally. Right now, this is my personal goal to make a fiction film and to also lobby the government and embassies to make contacts and connections with film companies abroad.”
Nevertheless we are beginning to see a growing number of Yemeni filmmakers and a rise in society’s appreciation to the art and film culture. Ammar Basha’s films capture your attention and stun you with a mastery of humanistic art and fun. He’s a traditional modest man who knows how to reach an audience and direct them into hearing stories of whatever has been ignored and hidden whether fiction or non-fiction. Ammar Basha could be seen as Yemen’s next upcoming fiction film champion, a man who has built his entire life around film.