Theater group gives smiles and comic relief to war-weary Yemenis

Yemeni men, women and children filled a hall earlier this month in rebel-held Sanaa, laughing and clapping as actors took to the stage with comic relief for their war-torn country.

Yemen’s conflict has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, says the UN, and the Arab world’s poorest country has also been hit hard by the new corona virus.

Hoping to offer entertainment to the radiant population, a group of struggling artists in the capital Sanaa performed a play called “Yemeni Film”, which showed the country’s difficulties.

It revolved around young people who want to produce a film but face a mountain of challenges, including violence, airstrikes, lack of funding and lack of trained actors.

In an attempt to avoid the minefield with political sensitivity and possible backlash, the actors turned to comedy to paint a picture of their trials.

For the dozens of men, women and children who filled a cultural center in Sanaa, it was a welcome respite from their daily struggle.

They cheered, whistled and laughed openly, while sitting side by side without face masks, despite the coronavirus danger.

“We, who are struggling with artists, cannot provide food aid or stop the ongoing conflict,” Mohammed Khaled, the play’s director, told AFP.

“All we can do is offer the people entertainment to take them out of their current situation and an artistic message that they can enjoy.”

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in the Yemeni war, which broke out after Iranian-backed Huthis took control of Sanaa in 2014.

The conflict has deepened since 2015, when a Saudi coalition intervened to support the government against the rebels.

After five years of war, malnutrition has reached record levels and pushed the country further into famine, the UN World Food Program warned in early December.

Despite a UN-mediated agreement between the warring parties two years ago, a peaceful settlement has not yet been reached.

No infrastructure

The conflict affected everyone and everything in Yemen, says Khaled, and the art scene is no exception.

“This play is about me, and all the artists and filmmakers in Yemen who are struggling,” he said.

Before the war, Yemen had a small but burgeoning film and theater industry, but there were only a handful of makeshift cinemas showing old films, while cultural centers or schools often provided the backdrop for plays that spoke of politics or significant moments in Yemeni history.

Over the years, some films produced by Yemenis made headlines.

“Karama Has No Walls”, a documentary by Sara Ishaq, was an Oscar-nominated film in 2014 that told the story of 2011 protests in Sanaa.

The documentary “I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced” – the true story of a child bride – was submitted for consideration at the 2017 Oscars but was not selected.

The drama “10 days before the wedding” from 2018, which told the story of a couple who tried to tie the knot during the war, was chosen as Yemen’s contribution for best foreign language film the following year, but it was not nominated.

“The biggest problem we face is that there are no cinemas,” says Khaled.

Today, filmmakers produce their work but “only upload it online,” he said.

“There is no financial return and this undermines (our) ability to sustain the industry.”

A ‘Yemen we miss’

But these are not the only challenges.

Huthi authorities controlling Sanaa – whose ancient city is one of Yemen’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites – have introduced strict rules on dress, gender segregation and entertainment in the capital.

Although Yemeni society has always been conservative, it has traditionally allowed for personal freedom and for cultural events, including concerts.

Actor Ahmad Hilmy hopes such activities return to Sanaa.

“We actors and filmmakers suffer a lot because there is no infrastructure for the film and theater industry,” he said.

Sanaa resident Ayash Subai said cultural activities should be used to divert ordinary headlines that only show Yemen as a war zone.

“This is what we young people in the country lack. These activities convey the beautiful and positive image of Yemen that we lack,” he said.

To compensate for that, Subai said, young people are following the work of Yemeni artists online.

“But this is not enough,” he added.


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