It also won best Arabic film at the Cairo International Film Festival last week, rare for a non-Egyptian entry.
Shot entirely in Yemen’s capital, the 86-minute film revisits the timeless anguish encountered by lovers from different social classes.
Written and directed by Bader Ben Hirsi, a British-born Yemeni, and produced by his childhood friend Ahmed Abdali, the film faced political and religious harassment and funding obstacles.
“Yemen isn’t the wealthiest of Arab countries,” Ben Hirsi told Aljazeera.net.
Working on their ninth collaboration (the previous eight were documentaries), the 37 year-olds eventually raised $1.1 million through local businessmen and government backing.
“Versus where that money could be spent in hospitals or schools, we had to convince people that a film can also be an investment,” Ben Hirsi said. “But one thing that we’re proud of is that the film is 100% produced in Yemen.”
With funding secured, Ben Hirsi wrote the script in three days.
The film opens with a line from Italian photographer Federico, played by Paolo Romano: “Yemen is the world’s best kept secret.”
Ben Hirsi trained actors for
Tariq (Nabil Saber) and Bilquis (Redha Khoder) belong to society’s higher ranks, and their families match them up accordingly. Not entirely uncommon in Yemen, Tariq has only seen his fiancee in a photograph.
When he lays his eyes on a beautiful woman wearing a dress made especially for his betrothed, he’s in bliss – only to find out it’s someone else, Ines (Dania Hammoud), an enchanting but poor munagasher, or henna artist.
Casting in a country with no film industry was an obvious risk, but the actors trained for five months under Ben Hirsi, using techniques that included sensory work.
Saber was initially the casting agent’s translator. When no suitable actor was found, he was offered the leading role.
Though not overwhelmed, he plays it safe too often. Saber appears afraid to make mistakes rather than let go and explore the character’s range, and the resulting screen presence is flat.
His acting drawbacks are compensated by Hammoud’s mesmerising portrayal of Ines. Hammoud, who is Lebanese, practised the Yemeni dialect for months.
The scene of her painting the naked back of an Italian man, risking imprisonment and public haranguing, drew shrieks from the crowd.
The part of Federico was originally awarded to an Austrian, who was assaulted in a rare stabbing targeting Westerners.
Saber was initially the casting
Considering Ben Hirsi was “happy to find anyone” to take his place so late into production, Paolo did a convincing job as the Italian who bridges the gap between East and West.
The stabbing, however, wasn’t their only brush with physical threat. “On the second day of filming a religious group walked onto the set and told the crew to stop,” said Abdali.
“That took two days to resolve. We had to negotiate with them and even had one of them read the script. They asked for some changes, and because they were superficial we agreed.”
Members of the Yemeni parliament also inquired about the script, and asked to see video footage midway through screening.
But for Hirsi, the film is a labour of love.
“I knew it would have to be approved by many decision makers, meaning no violence, no sex, no crime, no religion, and no women … impossible.
“I resorted to writing a story about love but with all its innocence.”
And if audience reaction is any indication, Hirsi seems to have succeeded rather well.
All pictures in this report are courtesy Bader Ben Hirsi