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Bader Ben Hirsi: Magic Realism in Old Sana'a
By Harvey F. Chartrand
September 29, 2006 - 12:12 AM PDT

"The djinni was me, by the way."

Bader Ben Hirsi is the talented British-Yemeni writer/director of A New Day in Old Sana'a, a tale of magic realism set in Yemen's ancient capital and the first full-length feature film to come out of that Middle Eastern country. In this mistaken identity drama interspersed with outright humor and fantasy elements, well-to-do photographer Tariq (Nabil Saber) balks at his arranged marriage into an aristocratic family and conspires to run off with a lower-class henna tattooist (Dania Hammoud).

Yemen is a country with no film industry whatsoever. Most of the technical expertise on A New Day in Old Sana'a was imported, although Yemeni assistants were trained in film production techniques during the entire shoot.

And yet the likelihood of a viable film industry taking hold in Yemen is remote, as the Arab Islamic state is extremely hostile to cinema culture. One reason is that Yemenis associate movies with pornography. This stems from an incident 32 years ago when Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini added explicit sexual content to scenes shot in Yemen for his penultimate film, Arabian Nights (Il Fiore delle mille e una notte, 1974). Yemenis felt that Pasolini had betrayed their trust by adding these erotic inserts. Pornographic movies beamed in via satellite TV also reinforce the Yemenis' perception that all films are the work of the devil.

Even though A New Day in Old Sana'a received $40,000 in financial support from the government of the Republic of Yemen, Ben Hirsi faced opposition from the very conservative minister of culture and tourism, who objected to important scenes on religious and political grounds, demanded many script changes, and almost halted filming several times. Some scenes were cut. Others were filmed in secret, away from the prying eyes of excitable bureaucrats. After A New Day in Old Sana'a was finally completed, the minister threatened to ban the film in Yemen. It was finally screened in Sana'a - as a British entry in a European film festival!

Another complication was the belief held by many Yemeni women that appearing in a film would hurt their prospects for marriage, so a Lebanese actress had to be brought in to play the lead role. Surprisingly, there were absolutely no problems when the women were asked to perform without their veils in interior scenes, although one player was at first reluctant to part with her veil in front of the camera.

The ongoing political turmoil in that region was yet another obstacle. On the first day of shooting, Islamic extremists stormed the set and stopped production, believing the film crew to be a front for Mossad or the CIA. Soldiers were posted to guard the set against such intruders.

Ben Hirsi endured these slings and arrows with remarkable forbearance, and his persistence paid off. The success of A New Day in Old Sana'a on the festival circuit has won over the doubters in Yemen, including the minister of culture and tourism. But it is safe to assume that filming in such an unfriendly environment is an experience that Ben Hirsi does not wish to repeat anytime soon.

The 38-year-old director has also helmed the award-winning documentaries The English Sheikh and the Yemeni Gentleman (which chronicles his journey to Yemen after a lifetime spent in exile), Yemen & The War on Terror and Hajj: The Greatest Pilgrimage on Earth for Channel 4 in the UK. Ben Hirsi is now preparing his next feature-length film, Echoes of Silence, an atypical project that has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East, Arab culture or Islam.

A New Day in Old Sana'a has been selected as an official entry for the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs from September 28 through October 13. The film will also be shown in competition at the Calgary International Film Festival, which runs from September 22 through October 1. Last June, A New Day in Old Sana'a won the Silver Hawk Prize for the second-best long feature film at the Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam.

I recently spoke with Bader Ben Hirsi after a special screening of his film sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Ottawa.

A New Day in Old Sana'a

Tell me about your documentary entitled 9/11 Through Saudi Eyes.

That was done for [Dubai-based satellite TV channel] al-Arabiya. I had exclusive access to the parents of the hijackers and their schoolteachers. 9/11: Through Saudi Eyes did really well in the United States. That was an amazing project to work on. After 9/11, I became something of a "hot property," because I was a filmmaker who could speak English and Arabic. The offers kept coming in for me to go to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other trouble spots, but that didn't interest me. It was all too sensationalist. I didn't think that was the way to help the West understand the Middle East. I want to focus on the similarities, not the differences, between our two cultures. However, I am also working on other projects that have nothing to do with the Arab world.

Are we seeing an invigorated pan-Arab cinema movement nowadays?

There's a new wave of Arab film, a new and very exciting style that is emerging. Traditionally, Arab cinema was dominated by the Egyptian film industry. There were some incredible films made in Egypt in the 50s. Comedies and slapstick were very popular in Arab cinemas for many years. Until recently, younger people didn't get a chance to direct in Arab cinema. You worked your way up and then, at age 50, they let you direct. No one gave the younger directors a chance. Now younger Arab directors are returning to their countries of origin and they are filming with a new voice and a new style that is very "world cinema." They know their market and they know their trade.

What accounts for this sudden upsurge and interest in Arab cinema? Are these films reaching a global audience?

The films coming out of places like Palestine and Iraq tend to be the ones that sales agents and distributors are interested in. But films like A New Day in Old Sana'a are a harder sell, because they aren't about terrorism. "Where is the audience for magic realism?" the film distributors ask. Well, we've seen the audiences and how they have embraced our film. There is definitely an audience for films like A New Day in Old Sana'a. The response at festival screenings around the world has been amazing. How can that not be important? I just don't get that.

So how are you going about raising awareness of your film in North America?

We're screening it on the festival circuit here and hoping for a limited release in smaller theaters along with a DVD release through Arab Film Distribution. That will be the best way of getting people to see it, I think.

We will have special screenings at Georgetown University and at Yale. We'll be at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, too. In fact, the Palm Springs organizers suggested we put this film forward as Yemen's official entry for the Oscars... but the criteria for the Academy Awards were so complicated for Yemen that [the Ministry of Culture and Tourism] could never get its act together and officially put this film forward - not that A New Day in Old Sana'a would get short-listed, but for Yemen to have made an entry to the Academy Awards would have been a great historic moment. But hey, nothing surprises me now about Yemen's bureaucracy.

Who are your main cinematic influences?

I don't really have a favorite director. I love the old black-and-white classics and I love world cinema. I like films where I don't know the actors. Otherwise, I'd see actors "acting" and not get into the story as much. Storytelling is becoming a lost art. In Hollywood, screenwriting has become so formulaic, to the extent that you feel there is some kind of computer program and they just press "enter" to change characters. For me, the scriptwriting and directing go hand-in-hand. I can see the film as I'm writing it. A New Day in Old Sana'a is exactly as I saw it when I wrote it. It's incredible that it came out that way.

How did you choose your cast for A New Day in Old Sana'a?

I was new to Yemeni actors. They were good actors who worked on Yemeni TV and on the stage, but I didn't know any of them. The only non-professional actor in the film is the young man who plays Tariq, the lead role. He was actually raised in the old neighborhood where we were filming. We brought in an Italian actor, Paolo Romano, to play the western observer. An English actor dubbed his voice. A New Day in Old Sana'a is very much an ensemble piece and I was quite pleased with the quality of the performances.

Is the story of A New Day in Old Sana'a based on a folk tale or legend or an anecdote someone told you? Or is it complete fiction?

It is based on lots of little stories and observations. For example, the scene where the three women gossip in the park - I wrote that while I was in my room, writing. I looked down onto a garden square and saw three veiled women sitting there, moving as they followed the shade around throughout the day. I was also familiar with a situation in real life quite similar to the one depicted in the film, of a young man from a good family who would tarnish his family's reputation by marrying beneath his station, so to speak. His whole future was being dictated to him by his grandfather. In Yemen, elders remain the head of the family until they die.

What is the significance of the djinni at the end of the film? Is he for real?

I didn't want the film to end on a really depressing note. [A character goes mad and wanders the streets of Old Sana'a at midnight - Ed.] People in the Middle East still believe in djinn, you know. They are spirits mentioned in the Koran, and the belief in djinn is still widespread in Arab countries. The djinni was me, by the way. That was my cameo.

Tell me about your upcoming Canadian project. What's it about?

It's a period drama called Echoes of Silence. It's a very powerful screenplay which I aim to direct. I love the story and can't wait to get my teeth into it. I locked myself away in a flat in Berlin for two weeks to write it. The story is set in Ireland in 1907, but may be filmed in Canada. Echoes of Silence is about the tragic death of a misunderstood young girl, which consequently changes the lives of the local villagers. It's very haunting and gripping, very nail-biting. Echoes of Silence will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. We have major production companies interested in it. It's one of those films that can be timeless and classic whilst going a very long way. Ahmed Abdali is the producer. At first, my producer and I thought this film will be good. Now we think it will be great!

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"The djinni was me, by the way."

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Harvey F. Chartrand
Editor of Ottawa Life Magazine, Harvey F. Chartrand has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Jerusalem Post, Shock Cinema, Take One, Rue Morgue, Filmfax, the Film Journal... the list just goes on and on.

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