I realised that the only way I'd be able to support myself and my family was basically to figure out a way to leave. Fortunately in 2014 we worked with the Qatary initiative of our chalkboard animations, which were the first in the region. We made a chalkboard animation for Qatar in 2014, and I stayed in touch with her and, when I realised that my husband got a chance to study here in Doha. We hadn't had the opportunity to get married because of the situation obviously so I reached out to her and I asked her to help me get a job and that would help me get married and get us to Qatar together. And she did, she gave me a visa to work for her initiative. That was the jump to come here and from that I managed to study at Northwestern University. Finally pursuing something in media. I finished a degree in journalism, and also from here I got back to film making from the Doha film institute.
It was tackling loss, loss of motherland and loss of motherhood and how we were far away from home for at least three years, because we were scared that if we went back then we might lose the opportunity to finish our education. It was unstable at the time. So it was with all of these layers that I tried to start healing, I tried to get back on my feet and film was my way to get back up and try to give back, because I'm here and there is electricity, there is water. We're very fortunate, but the guilt is following us. Why were we the ones who deserve to have a better place, whereas our families', mine and my husband's are still in Yemen. Many of our friends, and the people in Yemen are still suffering. So it's been quite a journey.
How did you discover a passion for media? because a lot of people find it through their parents, or the film industry within their country, but Yemen doesn’t place a lot of importance on film, so how did you find media and fall in love with it?
Both my parents are engineers, so we’re a very engineer oriented family. I don't know when, but I learned English by myself. My mom is Russian. At home we speak Russian. And then we live in Yemen. I’ve never been to Russia so Russia to me is our home, is mom, is the TV we watched, it’s the food we ate. And then the outside is all Yemen. So I needed a language that I could use to talk to myself and without my family getting it, so I learned English. It was just by writing the lyrics, and trying to write lyrics and just watch movies without reading subtitles and try to have a mini dictionary next to me and learn. I think from there I picked up the importance of different media; music, film. All of these audio visual elements that were kind of my gateway from so many things. My family didn't understand at the time perhaps how important that was for me. That was kind of my escape world that nobody knew about.
Do you find it easy to keep in contact with your family?
Because of the internet and recently the floods, the connection has been very very poor. So I managed to voice message them and then we always exchange photos you know, Mum and her plants, and they have so many cats and dogs. So it's just little anecdotes to keep each other updated.
What would you say about the contrast between the imagery that the media puts out into the world, like of starving and malnourished children, versus people like yourself or others who appear to be living normal lives. What do you have to say about this? In terms of what the media shows and what is actually happening..?
Actually, that’s what I'm trying to change, the stereotypical image of what a Yemeni is.
It's so sad when someone looks at me and says “oh you don't look Yemeni”. What does it look like? a starving child? who has nothing? who lives in a camp? That's not what we look like. Unfortunately, that’s the news banking on war porn, especially of UN agencies. You saw the wave recently, it was all just to gather money.
Most of this money goes to benefit few international specialists who come to, I don't know what they do, but they're not solving any issues in Yemen, and we stay the same. And then this wave just, you know, calms down and goes away. So that's what I tried to do with ‘In the Middle’, showing Ali as someone who's articulate, who has charisma, who has kindness in his eyes. I also loved how one of the festivals described it as ‘gentle masculinity’, which is something you don’t see in the Arab region.
It's as if all men are savages and they beat women and they’re horrible, that's not my dad, that's not my husband, that’s not my brother, you know. Horrible acts exist in every nation, it's not something that is just attached to Arabs. I'm trying to break that. The war is in the backdrop of Ali’s story of course, it is the backdrop of all of us, it's in our blood, we carry war with us, but that does not define us. You know circumstances that we will hopefully eventually overcome, just like other nations have been through other issues, you know. Unfortunately the media and the news, they just put us in these dark boxes, as if we're nothing good. And that really destroys the hope in the youth, in the coming generations, because we can't imagine ourselves any better. That's destroying us.
In terms of these charities coming in and giving humanitarian aid. What are your views on that. Are there many community projects surrounding this humanitarian aid? or is it all aimed at just helping people survive rather than thrive?
Well, that has been the case for so many years. Recently there has been some sort of a change in some of the NGOs, which decided to give some monetary aid instead of giving food, because not every family will need food, some will need money to rebuild parts of their houses, some will need money to go to the hospital. Not everyone will need a pack of rice and oil, that's unrealistic.
So, giving money to families to be able to have agency in what they need to provide for themselves that's extremely important. Also another thing is that these NGOs come with international experts. They never allow or give the chance for local Yemenis to grow in these organisations and be able to help themselves. That just keeps the cycle. In this situation, the maximum is you'll be in IT in these organisations, as if you’re not good enough to monitor and help, although these young people are also doctors and they are a pivotal part of the community, but they're not given the chances to grow in these organisation. So in a way, these organisations benefit from war, without war they wouldn’t exist. Many people, like Ali [from In the Middle] become part of this war machine whether they like it or not.
He is like many young people a graduate of universities, he is for example a civil engineer, there are many others like him. And instead of being able to live and work, they have to pick up a gun and stand at the check points, because there is no other way to provide for their families. If that's the case, then the cycle doesn’t end. Kids as young as 10 years old, they skip school to go to the frontline to provide as well. This happens with all sides, whether it's the South, or the North, whether they admit it or not, all of them have been recruiting kids. What does this mean for the next generation then? no one is educated, but everyone is well accommodated with guns, it's chaos.
And in terms of the everyday person, are a lot of people able to go to find work? Like your parents for example? Or are many people unemployed? Is there much work for people, other than the war work?
So since 2011 my dad hasn't been able to work, he's an engineer so there's actually nothing to build, there are no governmental projects so he has been unemployed since then. My mum she's a housewife. And those who I know are working, and have a stable income are working with NGOs. Unfortunately, everything else is not as providing, so everyone is aspiring to work with NGOs. A close friend of my husband is a doctor and he quit and is now working with an NGO.
Whenever he has extra time he works shifts at the hospital but it's very little to no money for someone to work 24/7 and not being able to do much with that money. So the way to go is if you have family abroad, the family are supporting you, or if there's any opportunity to work in an NGO then that's the way to go.
Is it quite difficult for a Yemeni person to leave Yemen? to get a visa?
It's extremely hard for us to move out. Even to Doha here because other countries are fearing that once a Yemeni comes in they will never come out. Even for me living in Doha, I cannot go to the US because of the ban. I travel with my Russian passport, I'm fortunate enough to have that, but for my husband, even though he works with UNESCO, it's really difficult for him to get a visa anywhere.
What do you hope to achieve with your films?
It is a huge question it's a huge responsibility that I've been struggling with for so so long. So once I started school again, here in Doha one of my professors, every time he saw me in the hallways, he would ask me, “What are you doing for Yemen? So what are you doing for Yemen?” and he didn't realise that, I just left, there is so much baggage that I'm carrying, I'm trying to get back on my feet, I lost a child that we didn't expect but it was a huge thing, plus the psychological effect of the war, knowing that my family are not in a safe place, constantly worrying about them and so many things. Then, you know, casually every time he sees me he just says that. I didn't know what to say.
I only managed to answer that question when I got back to filmmaking and I made ‘Just Another Memory’. And I only realised the importance of film and telling stories when I shared it for the first time in 2018. People's reactions, many Yemenis abroad and even non-Yemenis got to see a different perspective of what they see in the media. It was quite a huge impact. People cried, people came and hugged myself and my husband. I realised that this was not just for me to heal but this is my way to give back.
I know how to make films and I know how to tell stories. And this is gonna be my way forward. I was fortunate enough to make ‘In the Middle’ a year after and I made another documentary in Sana’a about a silversmith. I’m showing stories of how Yemeni people really are. There aren't enough narratives like this. All I can do is, you know, show images from home, from how I know it.
Have you had a lot of non-Yemeni people see your films? What's been their reaction to them?
There was a particular person, my professor, who I know meant well, but when I shared the film with him he said what I was showing wasn’t genuine, mind you he’d never been to Yemen and I’m probably the only Yemeni he knows. He said I wasn’t showing the real Yemen, “where is the war?” I need to show the war. And I was really shocked and saddened, I was showing the real perspective of Yemen, not to mention the perspective of a woman experiencing loss. So to have him say I wasn’t being genuine hurt me deeply.
I just kept nodding my head and thanking him for the time. My issue was with someone who's not from my community and not from my struggle to tell me that I'm ignorant, that I don't know how to show it.
It's amazing what you have done despite the fact that there is not much infrastructure for it within Yemen.
Yeah, what happened, I believe that due to the war we scattered, in a way. And now those who got an opportunity abroad are trying to bridge it with those who are inside. So I'm part of mentoring programs and I’m mentoring a bunch of filmmakers who are in Yemen, and obviously we get more opportunities outside so we try to extend them to the inside and create a community or some sort of a network. And I think that that will help even further.
So I'm in New Zealand, talking to people who unfortunately haven't even heard about the crisis in Yemen, or don't know much about it. So what's something that you wish more people knew about Yemen?
I wish that there were more chances for people to, just to hear our stories as they are, you know. More channels that show us Yemenis and our narratives outside of of the stereotypical news cycles that people are so tired of. I understand that when you scroll down your feed and you find all of these images of misery, I understand you just scrolled past them and you don't want to read them because we are so over saturated by them. And life is so heavy, especially this year, and people just want some sort of relief, they want to feel human rather than, you know, as if everything is doomed. So perhaps I wish for better ways of sharing stories and sharing struggle without overloading our souls any further.