Interview with Bader Ben Hirsi

"I Wanted to Make a Film Which People Everywhere Would Understand"

The London-based filmmaker Bader Ben Hirsi has made the first Yemeni feature film ever. "A new day in old Sana'a" has been awarded several prizes, among them the Silver Falcon at the Sixth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. He spoke there to Larissa Bender

Bader Ben Hirsi (photo: Larissa Bender)
Bader Ben Hirsi: "Anyone who sees the film will understand that the situation sometimes contradicts the picture which Europeans have of the Arab world"

​​You've produced and made the first ever Yemeni feature film. The person from whose perspective the story is told is an Italian. Why have you chosen this point of view?

Bader Ben Hirsi: I considered how I could make the film more accessible to a wider public. So I put a European in the story. That way, if the film can't be shown in Yemen, it can at least be seen abroad throughout the world.

At the same it allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. My friends in the West, in London, are always asking questions about the Arab world, about Islam and about Yemen. By having a European in the film I was able to answer these questions.

In addition there's the fact that Europeans sometimes have an "orientalised" picture of the Arab world. Some scenes in the film are like an explanation of why the Arabs or the Yemenis are the way they are. Anyone who sees the film will understand that the situation sometimes contradicts the picture which Europeans have of the Arab world.

photo: felix films
Scene from "A new day in old Sana'a" - Yemeni women gossip about the forthcoming wedding

​​The events in the film mostly deal with women. They appear often even without the veil. Why did you specifically choose a women's topic?

Ben Hirsi: I often hear how people in the West talk about Arab women, about Yemeni or Muslim women, and they say that they live under the rule of the men, that they are weak, that they have to walk five paces behind the men. But that isn't my personal experience. On the contrary: I have seven older sisters, I grew up with them and I have seen how strong they are and how strong my mother is. In my opinion women in the Arab world and in Yemen are very strong; they have a voice and they have rights…

But in Yemen in particular women have scarcely any rights and their voice can scarcely be heard…

Ben Hirsi: To be honest, I personally have a quite different experience. Perhaps the opposite is also true, but my experience with my sisters and my cousins is different: they are very self-confident.

Even those who live in Yemen?

Ben Hirsi: Yes, even them. They learn, they study, they make the decisions in the household, they work on the farms. I've tried to show in the story that they play an important role.

How did you work with the women? Yemeni women normally don't leave their homes without putting on a veil. What kind of women were they, who were prepared to show themselves in the film without a veil?

Ben Hirsi: I actually thought it would be harder. There are Yemeni women actors who have experience in television and on the stage, but there isn't any cinema. So we had to rehearse with some of them for five months.

photo: felix film
Ines and Amal, two of the main protagonists, take a walk in the garden

​​Casting was quite hard. It was easier with the older women who were married, but it was problematic with the ones who weren't married. The actor who plays the role of Balqis, for example, was just seventeen years old. She didn't want anyone in her school to know that she was taking part in this film, even though she appears on television.

But there were absolutely no problems with the fact that the women performed without their veils. I was surprised. I thought they wouldn't accept it. But the opposite was the case: they were prepared to play the whole film without their veils. But I wanted the women to play the outdoor scenes, in the street, wearing the veil, and not wear the veil at home.

A lot of my friends in Europe believe that Arab women wear their veils or their burkas the whole time, even at home. They believe that even their husbands don't see them without the veils. That's why I concentrated on this issue.

And Najla Atef, for example, who plays Ghadir, the sister of Tariq, is one of the very few women who never wears a veil, who even goes on the street without a burka.

Where did the Yemeni actors study? Is there a drama school in Yemen?

Ben Hirsi: There's a cultural institute where the actors have studied who are in the soap operas and the theatre. But there is no independent Yemeni cinema culture.

Where does this reserve or this resistance towards the feature film come from? Why has there been no Yemeni cinema until now?

Ben Hirsi: Cinema has a very bad reputation because Yemenis believe that there are always sex scenes in films. I imagine that this comes from the films they see on the satellite channels. They fear that cinema will be the "gate to decadence" for Yemen.

But there's another point: in the seventies Paolo Pasolini filmed some of the scenes for his film "Arabian Nights" in Yemen. When the film came out, there were many sex scenes in it, and the Yemenis felt themselves cheated. Since then they've lost their faith in cinema. In addition, people who go to the cinema are seen as being not respectable. They're viewed with suspicion.

Before your film was shown, you said that this was the first Yemeni film and could well be the last. Why are you so pessimistic?

Ben Hirsi: Because of the daily difficulties we had. They cut many scenes out of the film. I don't think any other director would have carried on and been so patient.

What kind of difficulties did you have?

Ben Hirsi: The parliament got involved, they even changed the text. And they kept saying we were working for the CIA or Mossad.

What was the reaction to the film in the Arab world?

Ben Hirsi: When the film was finished I travelled to Yemen and showed it to the Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Salih, and the former prime minister, Abdalkarim el-Aryani. Both of them liked the film. And I thought: if they like the film, then everything is OK.

photo: felix film
The Italian photographer Frederico and his Yemeni assistant Tariq take a bath - Ben Hirsi employed the European character as a kind of mediator for western audiences

​​But then the current minister of culture saw the film and he didn't like it. He said he might ban the film in Yemen. Then I said: if you ban the film in Yemen, then that will be a good advertisement. Thank you – that will help me very much. But there's nothing in the film which justifies its being banned. So then he hesitated.

After that there was a festival of European film in Yemen. Every European ambassador chose a film from their country. And since our office is in London, the British nominated our film. That's how the film was first shown in Yemen, first in Sana'a and then in Aden. The public liked the film and asked themselves why the papers had written so badly about it.

Two weeks later we had the world premiere at the film festival in Cairo, where it won the prize for the best Arabic film. Then it was shown at the film festival in Dubai and then in Maskat, where it won another two prizes. Here in Rotterdam it's having its first showing at a European festival.

The film's story is quite traditional. A rich man is supposed to marry a young woman from his own class, but he falls in love with a girl from a poor family. Why did you choose this particular story which has been done so often before?

Ben Hirsi: What I normally make are independent political documentaries, and I enjoy doing that. But if a film is being supported by television companies, whether in Britain or in the Arab world, they want sensation. They hype everything up so that the film seems like a kind of propaganda. They only follow their own interests and their own objectives.

At the film festivals I'm always seeing political films, for example about Palestine or Iraq, and that too is very important. But at the same time we should also show something else from the Arab world. People who see those films get their picture of the Arab world from them, and think, for example, that there's no love there. That's why I wanted to stay away from politics.

This is a love story which people all over the world can understand. And because it's the first Yemeni feature film, I wanted to tell a simple story well.

But such stories really do happen often in Yemen. There are class differences there, even if many people deny it. But for people in Yemen it's an important issue.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

© 2006

Bader Ben Hirsi was born in London in 1968 as the son of Yemeni parents. He's produced and directed a number of documentaries and short films, among them two which have won several awards: "The English Sheikh and the Yemeni Gentleman" and "Yemen & The War on Terror" – a fifty-minute documentary on Yemeni attempts to fight terrorism. "A New Day in Old Sana'a" is his first full-length feature film.

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