Monday, December 21, 2020

Bader Ben Hirsi Talks about the Yemen Human Rights Film Festival

What if human rights were respected in our world?” That is the theme question of this year's Karama Yemen Human Rights Film Festival. Due to the pandemic, the festival in its 2nd edition is held virtually, kicked off on December 18 until December 30. The tickets to watch the films are for free! (Click here & follow the instructions). 


The festival, which is led by a group of Yemeni youth, comes at a critical time as millions of civilians in Yemen face gross human rights abuses.

One member of the festival’s jury is the renowned British-Yemeni playwright, producer and director, Bader Ben Hirsi. Following my interview with him in 2012, so much has changed. To know more about the festival, his thoughts about Yemeni filmmaking and his upcoming projects, I interviewed Ben Hirsi last week. 

British-Yemeni playwright, producer 
and director, Bader Ben Hirsi, @2020 Private

Please tell me about the Karama Yemen Human Rights Film Festival & what role you play at the festival?

It’s a relatively new festival, only its second edition this year, but it’s part of the Karama Human Rights Film Festivals that take place throughout the Middle East and rest of the world. It’s a film festival dedicated to Human Rights issues and is run by the Yemeni division of Youth of The World.

I’ve been asked to be a juror for the awards section. I’m thrilled to be watching seven films by emerging Yemeni filmmakers, especially on such an important topic, and filmed in war conditions. I’m in awe. In 2019, I was a juror on the Film Festival of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) that was run by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and was initially set up by Lord William Hague and UNHRC Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, focusing on films dealing with topics related to sexual violence in conflict zones. Film festivals with such specific themes help draw attention to topics that need addressing. And the world needs to be made aware of the desperate and urgent humanitarian struggles taking place in Yemen right now, so I hope this festival helps draw attention to it.

What would you say to people who don’t see the value of Yemeni films and film festivals in Yemen, as the country has no cinemas?

As Yemeni people, we have a long historic culture of folkloric storytelling, film is just a continuation of this. Film is art and/or entertainment, an educational platform, why should the Yemeni people be deprived of this just because there's no cinema in the country? In this age, Film no longer means cinema.

It’s been a while since your last movie about Yemen, can you tell us where have you been all this time?

Well I’ve always been busy and never stopped, but I did spend a while focusing on research and writing. I now have five screenplays completed and ready. But the truth is I think I just wanted to spend more time with my young kids. Film-making means a lot of time away from family and loved ones. I didn’t want to miss out on my three children growing up. But it’s all worked out and I’m ready for my next film now (and the one after that!).

Oh really? What have you got lined up, and is it about Yemen?

Yes. It’s based on a true event that took place a year after the war started. Such horrific real-life stories are happening daily and there are hundreds of films that could be made. This is just one tragic true story from so many.

Can you tell us more about it?

I’m not sure how much I can say to be honest. There’s a non-disclosure agreement. We’ve been working on it for several years now and have been trying to keep it on the down low. At least for now. But again, the aim is to help raise awareness on Yemen through filmmaking so once it’s completed and released we hope to be pushing the message energetically.

So what’s it called and when will it come out?

You know, Afrah, I’m not even sure I can mention the title, but inshah’Allah it will be available by the end of next year or early 2022.

And the title?

Arghh, my producer, Liam wouldn’t be happy.

Oh go on!

OK. It’s called The Garden of Aden, but don’t tell anyone : ) 

A New Day in Old Sana'a is a 2005 romantic drama film directed by Bader Ben Hirsi.

Oh so your Film ‘A New Day in Old Sana’a’ was about Sana’a and this one is about Aden?

That’s all I can say at the moment, Afrah.

It’s tragic what’s happening in Yemen, how did that affect the Yemeni-led filmmaking industry or even how did that affect you as a Yemeni filmmaker?

Honestly, do you know what’s shocked me the most? Yemen is in its sixth year of war now and I cannot believe the lack of information out there on it. For years, since the very start of the war, I have been active in trying to cover Yemen’s story and get it known globally. I’ve been to all the leading news and production companies and they’ve all been saying ‘Yemen is not on our agenda’. Not on their agenda? How can that be? It’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. I just don’t understand it.

Even with raising the finances for The Garden of Aden. Yemen for some reason seems to be hushed and not high on anyone’s list. Of course, we can look into this more, but let’s focus on your question and it’s effects on Yemeni filmmakers, and me…

Well, the infrastructure for filmmaking in Yemen isn’t as strong as it could be. And even worse during this war. Would be nice to have more equipment and facilities, and of course training opportunities (a goal of mine is to help set-up some kind of filmmaking college there one day). But as far as stories go, especially with this endless and futile war going on, there’s no shortage of ideas. What I find particularly inspirational is the dedication and commitment of young filmmakers in Yemen. They’re resilient and will keep going. That’s why this Karama Human Rights Film Festival is so important and needs to be encouraged.

As for me, well there are always struggles in filmmaking, but even more so if your film happens to be about or set in Yemen. But I believe where there’s a will there is a way. And I don’t give up easily. It’s all part of the exhilarating journey and makes finishing a film even sweeter. I wouldn’t change a thing. Alhamdillah.