It’s not often that a storyteller’s background becomes as compelling as the story itself. But such is Yemeni filmmaker Khadija Al Salami’s, whose film Al Sarka (The Scream) is one of 15 documentaries to be screened under the Muhr Arab category at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival.
Khadija, often referred to as Yemen’s first woman filmmaker and producer, was born in Sana’a, where was married off at the age of 11 by her uncle and single mother and then raped by her husband. Determined to change her fate, she fought her way out and enrolled in a school only to be disowned by her family. Still, refusing to follow the same destiny as her mother and grandmother, also child brides, she landed in the US under a scholarship and then eventually moved to Paris, where she became a diplomat, and served as the cultural attaché at the Yemeni Embassy.
Khadija, now 46, has since made 20 films, most of them dealing with women’s rights issues and freedom. For her latest, she is back in the country of her birth, to tell the story of Yemeni women who were leading from the front last year in a bid to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“There are just so many stories to tell. So many inspiring people whose voices need to be heard,” says a softly spoken Khadija.
Filmed for two weeks in April during the uprising in 2011, The Scream is mostly told through accounts of four women – a writer, a poet, a human rights activist and a politician, Tawakkol Karman, who ended up being honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I was surprised that women were right there at the front with the men, fighting for change, and I had to film it,” says Khadija. “The fact that they came out and were asserting themselves in one of the most oppressive societies, screaming, shouting for change, it was an electrifying feeling. You never see their faces because most of them are covered, but you could see the fire in their eyes. It was a great feeling.”
But there was one thing about the women’s fight that surprised even Khadija.
“As we were filming, we began to notice that while the men let the women protest along with them, the majority of them still oppressed their own women in their homes, and would never let them have an equal place in society.
“The double standard was interesting: here were men demanding for their freedom against a dictator, who would even give up their lives for it but who would go home and deny their women the same basic rights they fought for outside.
“So the women’s fight became a greater fight. Although to the outside world it seemed as though they fought against the system like the men, it was a call for liberation, for freedom after years of oppression,” explains Khadija.
While films based around the Arab Spring and the role women have played in it have been dominating film festivals this year, the director says her story with Yemeni women at the forefront is unique.
“Compared to countries like Egypt and Tunisia, women in Yemen have it harder when it comes to freedom,” she says. “So I think people will be able to understand the extraordinary circumstances they were in.”
While the revolutions have brought about change, her film, she hopes, will inspire people around the world, not just women, to find their voices.
“I hope people will see it and find the courage to assert themselves and to stand up for the things they believe in,” she says.