Interview with Sara Ishaq

Interview with Sara Ishaq

Interviewed by Yasmine Hassan, TIM Associate Features Editor

What was your reaction when you found out that Karama has no walls was nominated for an Oscar? What does this nomination mean for the people of Yemen and the future of the country?

When it was short listed, I was in Sanaa I had just arrived back and I had just finished The Mulberry House film, in which my dad was the main character. He kept saying he didn’t want to see himself, I kept saying dad just watch it I need to agree for this film to go through.

And then I was going through my emails, sort of multitasking. The email came in from the Oscars, they said in the event that the film was nominated I would need at least 10 grand disposable money to make these two DCPs and about 100 DVDs and screeners, all sorts of stuff that I knew I had to get together in a short amount of time and I had just arrived in Yemen. So I get this email and it says congratulations you have just been short-listed. I was so worried at first, my dad was so excited he started jumping up and down saying I was his hero. I was like dad you don’t understand this means 1. This isn’t good from the harassment point because I was already being harassed for the film and 2 where am I going to get 10 grand in a week. Dad was very supportive he said they would do anything. The penny didn’t drop till a few days later, I didn’t want to tell people right away, especially while I was in Yemen so I could become a target. But I was being called up by everyone, State television, State news and newspaper even though this film is supposed to be against them. They read the synopsis and there was an article that was run in the State newspaper and the first guy to tweet about it was the spokesperson for Ali Abdallah Saleh,

karamaMy family was really happy. They saw how hard I worked for this and although initially they disagreed with a lot of it and didn’t understand it but they eventually grasped the concept of my work when during 2011 we would be watching the news and my voice or my footage would come up on television. It was very gradual, in very small doses got a sense of what I was doing. And then there was award after award for the film, bigger and bigger, so they were a little numbed and desensitized because of the acclaim it received. They were very happy though, and they kept asking what I would do if I got nominated. So when they announced it last week, my dad called me half an hour before asking me to let him know once they announce it. We have a Whatsapp Family Group so a lot of them were watching what was going on. My family lives all over the world, Canada, Scotland, Yemen, the UAE, and everyone was tuning in for the Oscar nominations results. But the short documentary category wasn’t announced on the show, it was announced on the website. So everyone thought we hadn’t made it through, but then I sent them the link to show them that Karama was on the list and was in fact nominated. So they were so happy for all of a minute and then they just went back to talking about what they were having for dinner or their normal day’s affairs. It was quite nice actually, it showed how down to earth they are about it. It was a very nice reaction from them. Mom spoke to the local newspaper in Lithgow, which is where I went to high school. It was very sweet to see the Yemeni public so happy that it won a nomination; it’s about a subject they really care about. It’s been a very positive response thankfully.

The fact that so many people were touched by it when I didn’t really know. I couldn’t get my head around the film because I spent months watching footage and trying to put it together and trying to figure out whether there was too much gore or not enough story and what the right balance would be. I was in a constant back and forth, putting the footage away and then going back to it and realizing that there was too much action and that I should put in more of the people. And then it was too much people and not enough on the attacks. It took months and months of going through the footage and eventually I just got confused and had no idea what to do anymore. I was petrified to show it to anyone.

The first screening was hell, absolute hell, It was in university, it was a graduates screening so we invited our family and friends. There were about 100 people along with my classmates showing all our films. And as soon as Karama came on I couldn’t stay in the hall, I went up to where the projector was, I stood next to the projectionist the whole time. I was worried about people’s reaction because if it was bad I had just done the people a disservice, and it was also the film and the subject matter and how it would stand up on its own as a film not just what it meant to be because it was on Yemen and on people who had sacrificed so much. Films about important subjects are done all the time but they haven’t come together karamaquote1in a way that affects the audience. I’ve seen many when you sit there and you see too much violence or too much interview and you leave confused. Trying to find that balance was really the hardest part for me because I wanted an impactful film. You don’t want people to leave feeling that this was completely hopeless, I wanted people to feel that there was hope for Yemen, that there will be a better future. I wanted a positive tone in there regardless of how heavy and depressing it may be. The overall story is meant to be uplifting in a way.

The first screening, I had no idea what kind of film I had, it could have easily been a disaster, I stood with the projectionist, screened the film and when the credits started rolling I went to bathroom to hide. I came out and I went into the hall and there was still a standing ovation. It lasted three minutes. People came out of the theater so emotional, in tears and they were like we had no idea you were making a film like this. I kept it to myself because it was very intimate to me because it was our revolution and so I only let a few people in so no one had any idea what I would be projecting.


What was your experience on the front lines of the uprisings, camera in hand? Why did you choose these specific characters to represent the revolution?

Khalid and Nasr, they were various other people that were filming, I wanted people that told the story or the incident from different perspectives. We filmed with three cameramen, we had footage from six different cameramen but I conducted interviews with just three of them. Then two dads and the kids, I wanted the victims stories or the wounded. I wanted the perspective from the field hospitals, I wanted to film with doctors and paramedics and then I interviewed people who were actually in the middle. One of them was deaf and dumb and he spoke with sign language, we bumped into him in the square, he was one of the guys who ran with the bodies from the square into the field hospital. We had amazing perspectives and stories that were to be told but it just became a question that we needed something simple, palatable and that people can grasp and will give us the building blocks of what happened and give us an emotional story and show the story and would really make us feel for every life that was lost and connect with it. I decided to reduce it to two dads and two cameramen, for a 26 minute film it just made for a better balance. Khaled and Nasr were really great speakers, they were young and very emotional and eloquent they filmed the majority of the archive of footage anyway so they were able to illustrate everything that they spoke about from the footage that they captured, so it made sense that they would be able to elaborate on what they filmed and what they were thinking at any given moment.

Promo-Still-6And likewise with the dads, initially I wanted to film to be more about them, their background. In the initial process of editing we went very deep into Anwar and Salem’s story. But then the footage from Khalid and Nasr was very important so I felt that it needed to contain both. We went back to the square a week after the attack and we filmed life as it was, the kids playing football and chess, people singing and dancing and it was very festive. It wasn’t a place where people were plotting to blow up the ministry of defense, they were there to peacefully protest and in return they were brutally attacked. And this was the loss of life and this is what the cost of it was, look at the dad and look at the young boy, even though they lost so much they can still smile and could still go on. I think their stories were the most powerful and they gave a clear picture of what happened.

Abdelwahed was the one character that everyone connected to the most after they watched the film. Funnily enough, he was the one that my prof had told me to cut out. But I trusted my gut instinct and I knew that he was intrinsic to the film. The glint in his eyes, and the smile on his face during the shot, his emotions were very raw and very real. He gives you the ebbs and flows of the story. He starts with the hurt he goes through of loosing his son but then he ends on a positive note about the revolution.


What was the factor that made you decide to turn the hours of video footage you had into Karama Has No Walls and turn you into the voice of the people suffering under the oppressive regime? How did you deal with the pressure of such a huge responsibility?

I don’t know, it has nothing to do with being brave and being the only person that will attempt it. It was frustration, it was complete and utter frustration in the lack of information coming out of the square it would be as simple as my family would stay at home and I would go to the square and I would see and hear stuff there. I would come home and they would have no idea, and no one was really affect by it if they weren’t close to the square until later on in the year when they started bombing. People really didn’t understand the importance of it, you heard the news you heard about attacks and stuff like that but what I felt as a filmmaker was that people are desensitized, they watch the violence over and over again, you’ve been inundated with these images for decades. Just watching that kind of stuff over and over again people just switch the channel, you detach yourself from the fact that these are people and you can’t turn a blind eye especially if you’re Yemenis and you’re in Yemen and your neighbors and yourself will be affected, someone in your family will be killed eventually.

karamaquote2Leading up to this the first few weeks, I didn’t know anyone else that was going to the square other than a few friends and activists. I went down and took my camera along with various aunts and my dad and sometimes on my own depending on how safe it would be. I would go and just film people going on with their day-to-day stuff. And then every couple of days there would be another attack, people would be tear-gassed and others would be killed, but it was always one or two people. I would make these short clips of a minute or two and upload them on YouTube and they started spreading and people were saying we didn’t know Yemen was having a revolution so turns out that no one really knew anything. So every so often I would go down again and make a video about something else, I would record a video, I would go to a field hospital and record testimonies.

At that point, I got in touch with Avaz and I bumped into a journalist from the BBC, she was undercover. She saw me with a camera and asked if I wanted to do something together, so we started filming for News Night. So it’s things like that, I was there and you just get caught up when you’re in the thick of it, a friend of a friend was attacked and you just want to document it. They are voiceless and you want to try to get their stories out as much as possible. They are contained in this little bubble and the rest of the world isn’t interested, they’re interested in Egypt because it was a huge thing and it’s such a massive population and everyone knows where it is on the map. With Yemen it was a baby revolution in comparison. When if you watch what happens, it was one of the most peaceful revolutions from the Arab spring considering hundreds of thousands of people from different governorates came and protested and there were a few deaths compared to how many were actually there. The Egyptian revolution ran its course in a certain way and then Libya, Tunisia, Syria and then Yemen. They are similar in some ways and all very different in the way they played out. The Yemeni revolution was the most peaceful in the way it played out. I remember in Arabic news channels when they would talk about it they were saying this is actually the example for the rest of the Arab countries, who would have thought that? People consider Yemenis to be quite primitive and backwards and very uneducated and poor, but actually they were extremely civilized and poised in the way that they conducted themselves and the revolutions. Once everything finished, things went crazy.

512px-Yemen_protest2It was frustrating for me that none of this was coming out, none of the stories were coming out, no one really knew what was happening. I had this sense of needing to do something, there are all these breaches of human rights and I needed to do something about them. Suddenly it was happening in my own country, and I couldn’t just sit there and not do anything about it. I’m not really a vocal person as an activist, I feel more comfortable behind the camera, watching and observing people from the back. So then I was at university after getting kicked out of Palestine, I thought I would wait six months and then I had to do my first year project. It could be about anything. I spoke to my professors and told them I wanted to do something about Yemen, they suggested my family and I said no, I wanted something to do with Yemen but not my family. Eventually, I reluctantly went to Yemen to speak to my family and ask them permission to film them around the house for ten days and make a film about this quirky Yemeni family.

I went back and started filming, they were on edge in the beginning, I kept telling them to forget I was there and they warmed up to it eventually because they gave up. I kept filming. During that week I arrived that’s when the revolution happened and suddenly I could see people react, suddenly the lunches that were held with the entire family were turning into political discussions, everyone seemed to have an opinion. Some were for the revolution others against and even my dad, suddenly he became more vocal and his role and opinion began to change and I was filming all of this. I filmed the conversations for the sake of remembering what people would say. When things started happening outside, I decided I would go outside to film.

Things became very tense at home because I was leaving the house on my own with a camera and putting myself at risk. And that was also this mini revolution that I was having at home where you have the patriarchs of the household and matriarchs standing in my way saying no you can’t go out and film, you’re going to get arrested and talking about my dress code and how I mix with men in the street and my reputation. Suddenly, that gave me a sense of purpose, because I thought that if this was rubbing them the wrong way then there’s obviously something on a social level that we have to change. My aunt backed up big time, she eventually pitched a tent in the square and set up a political party, and she was one of the most active women I’ve ever met in Yemen, she changed her dress code, we started wearing shorter abayas. We still wore jeans underneath but the abaya was down to our knees. I was back and forth, filming outside and inside and I was doing the BBC stuff and then the massacre happened.

Promo-Still-101Here I am filming my dad in his pajamas, 50 something people are being massacred and I knew I had to do something about it. At that point I had a contact with the BBC, so I thought I would do a short documentary for them. Meanwhile I had bumped into a guy named Abdelrahman Hussein who had just made a fiction film with another group of guys, one of them was Amin ElGhaberi who was a cameraman during the massacre. They showed me the footage they had because we were both interested in making a film about this. I told him my problem was that I really don’t know how to go about doing this on my own and especially as a woman I need backup with them. Amin showed me the footage, a lot of it was concentrated on the field hospital. But that inspired because it was known that some guys in the frontlines were getting footage from there and uploading it. We found Khalid and Nasr eventually and they showed us their footage and told us the story. It really impacted me and I felt that there was an incredible side that we needed to document but that wasn’t my main interest.

My main interest was finding the victims, Amin showed me some footage of this young boy who had his eyes shot out. There was this little boy that was a common denominator between all three guys because he appeared on all three cameras but no one knew who he was. So I asked my friends, paramedics, hospitals and no one knew where he was. I searched for ages. I’ve got thirty hours worth of massacre and morgue footage and field hospital it was the worst stuff I’d ever seen in my life. We did interviews with the cameramen and got them to tell their stories, I got a lot of footage of interviews with other people that wasn’t used. And I found Anwar’s dad while I was working with the BBC. I went back to do a more extended interview with him afterwards to get the whole story. And it was more intimate with us because we took our time, we had the family and so we got a bit closer with him and it made him become a lot more emotional with the camera that he was with the BBC. But I still had the little boy that I wanted to find because in all the interviews, everyone mentioned this little boy, no one knew his name. a week or so went by after the massacre and we still couldn’t trace him.

I went home and my uncle asked me for help with something and I was so tired. I went over to my aunt and she wanted to upload photos on Facebook but didn’t know how to create a note and wanted to spread it with all her friend. I’m talking her through the Facebook thing, and I asked her what she was doing. She said I took on this case of this young boy and she hands me the folder and my stomach sinks, this young boy had his eyes shot out and she karamaquote3had taken responsibility of him along with her sisters who were trying to raise money to get him some treatment and because he’s poor they live in this hut no one knows about them. She handed me the file and it was his entire medical records and contact information. I spent ten days running around the entire city and I go home and my aunt hands me his medical file. It was the most bizarre sequence of coincidences that could ever happen.

I got the file and burst into tears and she kept asking what was wrong, I told her you had no idea how much this means to me. I contacted the dad immediately and told him we wanted to interview him and tell Selim’s story. We met him that day and before I knew it this little report that I wanted to make about the massacre became so much bigger than what I expected. It went from a five-minute video for YouTube to something substantial where I had so many hours of testimonies and raw footage of exactly what happened step by step. But none of this was being used when I asked the cameramen what they were going to do with it they said it would be sitting in their hard drives and they weren’t really sure what to do with it. So I took a minute here and a minute there out of twenty-six hours. So then suddenly the weight of this project dawned on me and I realized this is way bigger than I am and Abdelrahman and Amin. So I took the footage back with me to Scotland because we spent two months in a café trying to edit because it was the only place where we got internet and the power didn’t cut as often. So we used that space to edit, but you’re in a public space and you’re trying to edit incriminating footage so it was very dangerous. So I decided the best way to do this is to smuggle the footage out of the country, go back to Scotland and edit there and make a decent film. No matter how hard we tried here we aren’t in the right atmosphere and we will never be able to get it right.

So I got in touch with HotSpot films in Britain who were based in Dubai and they volunteered to help sift through the footage and bring a rough-cut together because we had a very limited time to do it, I had to edit the film down to an hour but that was still too heavy and too long. So I took it back to university and spent two months during the night shift in edit suits and occasionally bringing in my fellow classmates and professors to sit with me and watch and give me feedback and I ploughed away till I condensed it to a half hour film. I submitted it to a bunch of festivals and as soon as it got nominations (the first nomination was at the BAFTS) that gave it some credibility and then festivals everywhere wanted to take it. It grew by itself. A very strange turn of events.

For me the bizarre thing about it is that it was almost like there was no question making this film even knowing how huge it. I put everything in jeopardy, my university was in jeopardy, my profs were calling asking if I was still filming my family and I went back with another 50 hours of that footage which ended up becoming another film (the mulberry house). It’s going to festivals. I knew they might kick me out but I wasn’t editing this film this year because I needed to finish the film about the massacre. They were annoyed and said it was a Promo-Still-1television film and it’s not what they were looking for but I said listen I will put your signature on it because I don’t intend on making a television reportage, I want to make a film that will make an impact. My profs caved and said okay let’s just push through with this film you’re too far gone now so you might as well just finish it.

But it was amazing that despite the risk, the fact that instead of staying two weeks in Yemen I ended up staying there for six months, and things just came to me. It was a really challenging process but things clicked, Selim’s file coming to me, bumping into the camera men, the fact that I even went to Yemen since I hadn’t been there in four years and I just so happen to arrive on the 19th of February and the protests began the next day. And I was supposed to leave on the 20th of March two days after the massacre, so the timing was perfect that I got there a day before and I was supposed to leave two days after but I just knew, my gut was saying that I can’t move and leave right now and I’m not sure why because everyone is telling me to leave the country except my gut. I would have never finished my family film had I left earlier. So what ended up happening I had a film about a family that were living normal lives talking about marriage, hijab and suddenly a revolution and a massacre happens and they become political, they set up a political party. I had no money, but everything in my guts told that this is what I had to do and where I had to be.

We would get really depressed during the editing, because the footage was so heavy and gruesome and awful. One day we couldn’t bear it anymore, I said a good way to motivate ourselves is to imagine we would be at the Oscars. The guys would laugh and we had a bunch of friends that were like yeah imagine that, you have to be positive. We were like never in a million years 1, a Yemeni film, 2 a film that has had no funding, we’re using our own equipment and footage that was filmed on flip-cams and we’re editing on a laptop in a coffee shop, we interviewed people in a toilet because it was the only place that was quiet enough, we taped a black curtain around the wall that would fall all the time during the interviews. It was horrible, it was something that every step of the way was a challenge, none of it was smooth and yet everything was facilitated. Even when I was leaving the country I made a million backups of all the tapes and buried the tapes in my granddad’s gardens, I went through security with no problems although I had three hard drives and 26 tapes and the camera and a tripod.

It was as if this road was being paved, although it was challenging it was very positive. Everything fell into place almost as if it was meant to happen, this was a film that was meant to be made.


What’s next for you, as a filmmaker, after this documentary and with the acclaim you’ve received from Karama Has No Walls?

I want to work with other people in Yemen, I want to set up some kind of film institute or academy and run workshops. There’s so much talent there but people just don’t have the opportunities to meet other filmmakers and understand the system. I really want to do something where I can bring these people together. Something like an Oscar nomination brings you a lot of credibility to do something like this. On one hand though, I can be a bit more of a target in Yemen if I try to set something up and encourage people to make films karamaquote4that expose certain people but I met some people that are extraordinary, they are so talented and have so much potential but then there is no cinema culture in Yemen. So I would love to set something up where we can have at least a screening room and then do screenings to introduce people to this kind of screening and viewing where you introduce them to documentaries and different art forms and set up a place where people can exhibit their own work. I’ve got friends from abroad, a big network of filmmakers, people who would be amazing to include in this sort of project, having them come in a run workshops.

I’m now working with a guy named Moussa Saeed, he’s Kashmiri American and lives in New York. He’s married to Ahlam Saeed, a Yemeni woman. He won the audience award at Sundance for his film Army of Saints. I’m working with him now we’re co-writing a fiction film. He’s the director and I’m producing it along with another American producer. It’s a fiction film set in Yemen, it talks about tribalism. It’s a film we’re working on and going to develop in the next few years. Right now I’ve got these two documentaries, The Mulberry House is doing the rounds at festivals now. It’s the behind the scenes film of Karama.

Hopefully more to come but I really do hope that more Yemenis make more films. I hope that the three of us getting this far, very unintentionally; it wasn’t something that we planned or had the means of making an Oscar film. We did what we did because we felt we had to and we had equipment. If we can do it, then anyone can do it. They have a very defeatist attitude, we live in Yemen we don’t have funding. It’s not about that, it’s about you and how much you believe in your own project and seeing through it to the end. We had no money, nothing, I worked as a yoga instructor to raise my money to make a film. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Yemen or in Britain, you do what you have to do. Having an idea and seeing it through and realizing that it’s not a piece of cake. It’s not about what education you have, or the money or funding, those things are important, you have to be modest and take advice but also believe in it and try and go all the way, run horses. We really want Yemenis to feel enthusiastic and feel that they can do it as well.


How do you, as a filmmaker, decide that the story you are telling is complete given that as we’ve clearly seen stability and change do not come into the region immediately after an uprising?

Well with Karama, I had to finish it at some point, by not going into the details of the revolution I’m kind of safe because those people died and they aren’t coming back so the story ends there. At the point when Ali Saleh stepped down, the story about the massacre, the dads it all revolved around that one day. The day passed and the wall is gone and people moved on so it was about recapturing that moment in history. I edited in a way that regardless of what happened the film would still be relevant.

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