A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Note: the article contains spoilers
The taxi driver I rode with one morning last August wanted to speak of nothing but his impressions of the film 10 Days Before the Wedding.
The buzz on social media and in the news outlets was already great; the taxi driver, inclined to the stories of the prophets, only served to confirm this (after long years of infertility, Sarah had been blessed with Isaac, and so, too, Aden with the film 10 Days Before the Wedding).
Amr Gamal in a shot behind the scenes. Image courtesy Ismail Saleem Ismail
We went to see it immediately. Wedding halls had been transformed into quasi-movie theaters packed with spectators. Two halls in Sheikh Othman and Ma’ala were offering six showings a day from 10:00am to 9:30pm. Before this event, the movie theaters had been shuttered for the last three decades in Aden for religious and political complexities, a city with a rich cinematic history and a vibrant cultural memory.
The first shot of the film didn’t quite foreshadow its seriousness; to me it seemed more like a TV report made for some local news channel. But as soon as the events began unfolding, the film worked – from overwhelming viewers with sadness at every scene of pain or misery to having them rolling with laughter at every comedic moment. The director and screenwriters managed to infuse the film with a sense of humor to bring out the very particular psychology of a city and its people confronted with harsh circumstances. It occurs to the viewer that if it weren’t for these juxtaposed moments of lightness and humor amidst all the sadness, then the people of the city wouldn’t have been able to stand strong in the face of despair and the machinery of death.
The film, 60 per cent of which was shot on outdoor locations in the township of Kreiter in Aden, and which will be shown across Yemen and in other Arab and foreign countries, tells the story of an engaged couple, Mamoun and Rasha, amidst a city beset by ruin from an unprecedented war—the Yemeni civil war, which began at the end of 2014—and the hardship and misery in the aftermath of all the destruction.
Staring at the ruins of her house, Rasha “starring Sally Hamada” on the right and her friend. Photo courtesy Ismail Saleem Ismail
Against the backdrop of Mamoun and Rasha’s preparations for their upcoming wedding, their search for a house and the attempts to furnish it and move, unfolds the entire reel of the southern coastal city’s sufferings in the aftermath of war. In the first few minutes of the film, the viewer discovers that the groom has no house – and neither do the bride’s parents: everything is besieged by destruction.
The film’s director, Amr Gamal, as well as his whole crew, lived through the miseries of war and post-war in all its horrifying detail. Gamal tells us of how he had to flee Kreiter, and how the intensified fighting near his home, located by the Central Bank and on the road leading to the Maashiq presidential palace, led to a wave of displacement, fragmenting the city as people fled in droves. This inspired him to try and tell the story of the city through cinema – an unparalleled effort that hasn’t been attempted in decades.
Mamoun has to go in search of a house to rent, facing obstacles at every turn. The film depicts all the despair of the city’s ruin unfolding on a tragic scale; even the actors are unadorned, appearing plainly as they are. One viewer said that this dose of realism drove home the actuality of the situation, and made her feel as though she were experiencing the events in the here and now.
As Gamal tells it, neither he, nor the actors, nor the people of the city could have ever imagined that anyone was capable of going down into the streets to shoot a movie that would become the main topic of conversation on every tongue: both in the virtual world and the painful reality. But nothing, says Gamal, stood in their way. When we asked him whether any clerics had raised objections to the film from a radical standpoint, he said that a few had referred to what they called the ‘danger of cinema returning to the social environment’, in that it encourages mixing between women and men. But the protest was short-lived, disappearing quickly without provoking any real debate.
The initial idea was to produce a series, as Gamal had already directed one entitled “Locked Doors”, which had been broadcast by the Yemeni channel Saeeda as part of its Ramadan lineup in 2014. But he had been unable to come up with a full number of episodes, and so he decided to turn it into a feature film instead. Gamal wasted no opportunity to praise his entire crew for their dedication, especially his producer, Mohsen Khalifi, and co-writer, Mazen Refaat. Gamal, now in his thirties, began first working in theater in his twenties, achieving fame and racking up success that has only grown with this latest offering.
Gamal talks about his anticipation of future creative projects, but also says that he is currently quite occupied with this firstborn film, which was most recently submitted to the foreign language film category at the Oscars. “This is my child”, he says, “and I love him dearly, but I am not responsible for him if he doesn’t win. I will prepare him as best as I can, but the rest is up to the jury’s monetary and critical considerations”.
“One viewer said that this dose of realism drove home the actuality of the situation, and made her feel as though she were experiencing the events in the here and now “ Photo Courtesy Ismail Saleem Ismail
The film, whose first shot showcases the suffering of Mamoun and his fiancée Rasha, goes on to tell the story of all the challenges that plagued the post-war city. Rasha’s family home was destroyed by the fierce fighting in the neighborhood, and so the entire family moves to the house of one of her father’s relatives, Saleem. Saleem, in turn, comes to constitute another obstacle for the couple as he sets his sights on the beautiful young girl who only has eyes for her fiancé. Sally Hamada, who plays the role of Rasha, is the granddaughter of the famous Yemeni musician Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassem, and has recently appeared in a number of theater plays and local TV serials.
The torment also plays out on the level of social interactions, where personal interests and power dynamics interfere in the human values of individuality and independence. This is embodied in the character of Saleem, who takes advantage of Mamoun’s difficult circumstances by exerting pressure on Rasha’s family to have her marry him instead. In this, the film sheds light on the prevailing social customs in Yemen, whereby parents can decide their children’s fates without regard for their individual desires or personal choices. Indeed, Rasha’s father does exactly this when he decides that she should marry Saleem.
Can love prevail amidst all these obstacles and difficult living conditions? The film says yes. But at a high cost, whose burden is shouldered by women, not men. It is Rasha, not Mamoun, who pays the price. When Mamoun gives up, Rasha jumps out the window to flee during the tense, final moments of the party to celebrate her upcoming, forced wedding to Saleem, whom she does not love. She jumps, full of pain over her beloved Mamoun’s betrayal, who chose to give in to despair. But despite all this, Mamoun, who does fight for his fiancée in his own way, triumphs over his difficulties, as a joyous wedding celebration finally takes place amongst the ruins.
Amr Gamal the movie director , offering a glimpse of hope amidst the ruins. Photo Courtesy Ismail Saleem Ismail
Before this, however, the challenges are many, first among which is Mamoun’s attempt to find a house that fits both his limited budget and his desire to maintain a relatively decent standard of living. Houses for rent are hard to come by in certain areas amidst the increased demand from all the displaced people fleeing to the city from the hellish battles. Then comes the difficulty of connecting the house to a supply of running water, especially as it is located at the very top of a hill in the already elevated Sira neighborhood. The limited capacities and limited options available create one of the film’s most blackly comic scenes, as donkeys must be brought in to transport the water. This is followed by scenes of the sewers overrunning, and the all-too real images of militiamen fighting a war that the film claims isn’t over yet. Here, a soldier is forced to sell his weapons to ease his financial distress, and there, gangs loot houses and lands belonging to people who can no longer return to the city. The heartbreak conveyed by the film over a city that was once-upon-a-time cosmopolitan and peaceful is matched only by the joy one feels when the film clearly communicates how this same city – like so many other ancient and venerable cities – is one that will never die.
The film has been shown close to 200 times in Aden alone, with viewers pouring in from outside the area to watch it. In light of all this adulation, there are many who have seen it more than once. All these viewers agree that it is a good film. Some said that there were no other films in the country to compare it to. They describe it as a dazzling, compelling film, inspiring both tears and laughter.
This is a cinematic debut both for the director and his crew. But it also represents a revitalization after a long period of drought, signaling that Aden is ready to take up its cultural role once again. According to Gamal, this would require concerted, steady effort to revive the scene and keep creating new offerings. Especially as we in this stricken country, with its paralyzed infrastructure, have not only to enlighten the awareness of so many different facets of society but to resume normal life. Let what comes forth anew be an exceptional book or a cinematic event, so that it might be, as Kafka said, “the ax that breaks the frozen sea inside us”.