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An Interview with the Yemeni Film Critic Huda Jafar

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

Huda Jafar, a Yemeni writer and film critic, began writing about cinema in the cultural pages of Al-Jumhuriya newspaper. She is known for her influential analytical articles that bring together various branches of knowledge from cinema, politics, history, literature and sociology. Her articles and texts have appeared in various publications, newspapers and websites including: Assafir Al-Arabi, Al-Nahar, Akhbar AlAdab, The New Arab, Manshoor, Arageek, Eye on Cinema, Ultra Sawt, and our magazine Al-Madaniya. She has also participated in the first commemorative issue of the Luxor African Film Festival Bulletin, which was dedicated to the late Egyptian director Tawfiq Saleh, as well as the piece published by Al-Modon website on seduction in Arab cinema, and the piece published by Al-Jadid magazine on cinema and Arabic women.

She has worked as an editor for Al-Jumhuriya’s cultural pages, issued from Taiz, and then at the independent Al-Awla newspaper.

In addition to writing, Huda Jaafar is a specialist in monitoring and evaluating civil society organizations’ projects.

– Welcome, Huda, to Al-Madaniya magazine. Can you tell us how your interest in cinema and film criticism started?

Thank you.

There is no specific moment that can be referred to as the point at which I decided to become a writer, or to become a film critic, but everything in my life pushed me to pursue this choice. Regarding the passion for cinema, I am like millions of passionate people who developed an attachment to cinema from childhood, and although I grew up in a country without cinemas, watching movies was a daily ritual in our home, and we used to discuss movies a lot despite our young age, and even before we knew there was such a thing as cinematic criticism.

At school, my friends and I used to talk a lot about the films that we watched, and it was a discussion dominated by the moral idea of ​​cinema, the actresses’ roles, the best scenes, the kissing scenes, the soundtrack and so on, and no one other than us did that in school. Nevertheless, the idea of writing as a profession, whether film criticism or anything else, was not my intention at all. After graduating from university, I wrote press articles that were predominantly satirical about satellite TV programs for al-Thawra newspaper, but I did not stay there for long. I had come to Yemen, then, from a neighboring country and did not know much about the world of writing and journalism in Yemen. Then the idea of ​​film criticism began to linger in my mind, and in a friendly conversation with the writer and political analyst Majed al-Madhaji I told him of my desire. So, he connected me with the journalist Zakaria al-Kamali, who was in charge of the cultural pages in Al-Jumhuriya newspaper, and so a weekly column was devoted to “I Love Cinema”, and I published my first article in February.

But if I have to point to a certain moment, I do remember it with great astonishment, even though my memory had completely swallowed it up until recently. One day, when I was about five years old, my dad was watching his favorite Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times (1936) with a friend, and I was nearby playing with something. In the closing scene, we see Chaplin and his sweetheart walking together, with intertwined hands, so my dad’s friend inquired about whether they will live happily together and have their success, so my father told him that the sun is shining, and that the road in front of them is paved, which means that they will live happily together, and they will succeed in their work.

This moment was completely hidden inside me until it suddenly appeared several months ago, but perhaps it was the moment that sowed this idea in me, that everything in a movie has meaning and significance.

– Do you face any difficulties being one of the few women working in the Arab film criticism field?

No, I did not find any difficulties in being a woman, but I do find some obstacles because I am from Yemen more than because I am a woman. The whole world has a very dim stereotype about Yemen, and this is not about me alone, but rather about successive generations of Yemeni writers, musicians, novelists, etc. Yemen’s geopolitical isolation and its image in the eyes of other countries has blurred all talents in Yemen in terms of recognition and appreciation, even among Yemenis themselves.

But in the end, I was able to overcome this, and I was fortunate enough to work with websites, newspapers and editors-in-chief who appreciate the talent regardless of the nationality of its owner. In particular, the critic Mr. Amir al-Omari, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Eye on Cinema, which is the only website dedicated to film criticism in the Arab world.

– Do you see the possibility of a competitive environment for dramatic and cinematic works in a country that is witnessing a bitter conflict and in which cinemas are closed, especially after 10 Days Before the Wedding and Sad Algarib?

The problem of cinema and arts in Yemen is fundamentally a political problem. For the last 30 years, Yemen has lived under a political system that has fought and marginalized arts, and so all cultural fields have been weakened. There is also a high rate of illiteracy in Yemen and any transgressions of rural values limit the capabilities of filmmakers. Also, there is a misunderstanding of the relationship of human rights to arts. And most producers and directors have a tremendous leniency, and they deal with all the arts in a very mundane way.

So I think that the Yemeni audience and the makers of drama stand as obstacles facing each other.

However, I very much hope that competitive films will be produced and that they receive popularity inside and outside Yemen, as the closure of cinemas in Yemen is one of the manifestations of the problems that filmmaking is facing in Yemen. But it is not the whole problem.

– You have mentioned more than once that you hate art linking to a message it has to deliver, so where do you see the place of cinematic art in Yemen today?

Art has a great ability to change societies, but this is not its only function. For example, I consider myself a feminist writer to the bones, and I have worked on huge projects to support women’s rights, but if I think of directing a movie or writing a script it will not be a film about women’s rights at all.

Because of the multiplicity of problems in Yemen, the topic of the film or the problem it is discussing has become the only perspective of artistic expression. Dealing with art in Yemen has more than one side. The foreign sponsor plays a role in restricting the Yemeni filmmaker to specific topics, as films coming from the Middle East are evaluated from a political point of view and not from an artistic point of view, and this is a difficult problem because it worsens the quality and does not take sides with the cause either. Moreover, the western celebration of the work makes the other party feel that they have accomplished something great while in reality, and according to aesthetic standards, the film is often very bad.

– How do you see the growing interest in cinema and drama among the younger Yemeni generation? Is it something through which we can observe the formation of a critical artistic taste in the Yemeni public, or is this interest an attempt to be distracted from the bitter reality?

The Yemeni by nature has a keen love for all arts, including cinema, but what is new is that social media has allowed us to see reactions to cinematic productions and to see the audience have different opinions about films. This interest and discussion about films is very positive, and it has nothing to do with the miserable reality in which Yemen lives.

– How do you see film criticism in Yemen nowadays?

Film criticism in Yemen is still in its very early beginnings, but I think it is a promising beginning, albeit rather slow. If we looked at the number of film reviews that Yemenis have published in the Arab press in the last five years, for example, we will find very few, but at the same time, the number of reviews has increased from the preceding five years.

Furthermore, the lack of cinematic criticism in Yemen is one of the reasons that has contributed to the deterioration of the arts. In general, we can say that cinematic production, whether Yemeni or otherwise, goes by – for the most part – without numerous serious critical readings. And what is written, little though it is, mostly tends to discuss the topic of the film in terms of ideology or human rights, and it is far from being an artistic cinematic criticism. Hence technical errors have accumulated, multiplied and aggravated.

– Who has shaped your views in the field of criticism?

Film criticism is the result of deep knowledge plus personal taste. I think everything I have been through has had a big role in shaping my artistic taste. Consequently, my critical writings have been affected, directly or indirectly, by my life experience as a whole, and by all the films, paintings and photographs that I have seen, and everything I have read in terms of novels, poetry and stories, and psychological, social and philosophical knowledge, and all those who have affected me, including writers, directors and actors. Also, my gender (being a female), my political trends, my growing up, and even the room in which I watched a film for the very first time – I keep the details in my memory even now – are all factors that have contributed to the formation of my critical taste and the coloring of my writing in some way.

– Aren’t we all, as audience, critics? So, what new aspect does the critic add?

Film criticism means having a variety of knowledge, multiple readings and the use of many eyes to capture what is not seen from the details of a scene. The critic is the ‘translator’ who connects between the filmmaker and the audience, the one who bridges the gap between the film and the recipient, and the ‘clairvoyant’ who interprets the meanings absent even from the director themself.

The true critic not only possesses knowledge but also has the courage to disclose it, even if it contradicts the prevailing opinions.

I do not think that the most important and greatest cinemas in the world would have reached their level without the critical movements that accompanied them.

The brilliant critic is, in fact, a subtle spectator.

– What is an enjoyable film for you? And could a film be enjoyable but bad at the same time?

One day I tried to find a link between my favorite films, but I couldn’t pinpoint a single link. But I think I like a film that touches a deep part of me, that makes me laugh or makes me think.

Yes, a film can be bad and enjoyable at the same time. Boredom is the biggest flaw in any cinematic film, this is, of course, after we agree on the meaning of the word ‘bad’.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

Is there a ‘bad taste’ and ‘good taste’ and what are the criteria for judging the two aesthetically?

Yes, of course, there is bad taste and good taste, and the personal taste goes back to several factors in which economic, social, cultural and psychological factors overlap. The taste of the film critic increases and decreases with their knowledge, experiences and the changes that the critic undergoes.

Taste develops by watching bad films, as well as good or great ones.

People do not usually like to admit that tastes are different, so they assert that taste is a ‘matter of relativity’, but even this relativity is not an absolute truth, nor does it negate the difference in tastes, because if they had been equal, art would have ceased to exist long ago.

– Do you sometimes intentionally watch bad movies for your critical analysis?

No, I don’t usually do that. In fact, it is not possible to know the standard of a film without watching it, so I cannot call a film bad in advance until I watch it.

There may be some genres that I like less than others, but I watch them because that is so necessary for critical writing.

– Does the film’s rating affect your choice? And your evaluation of it, whether negative or positive?

No, it does not affect my choice of it, as my list of favorite films contains films with low ratings, and to the contrary, there are films with very high ratings, and are favorites to thousands of people, but I consider them bad films, such as the Brazilian movie City of God (2002).

– Do you think that American cinema has finally won a victory for the feminist cause?

Nothing is worse than toxic masculinity, except for the wrong vision of feminism! What is happening in the United States and the current way of adopting women’s issues is disastrous. It reproduces masculinity in a more severe way, because it hurts the film artistically, and at the same time it harms the feminist cause.

It reminds me of the vision that foreign organizations assume in solving ‘third world’ problems.

Feminism does not mean gathering women in one film, nor does it mean forcing a female character in a film series that is known to be masculine (all the main protagonists are men), nor does it mean creating a female equivalent to a well-known male character such as James Bond and others. All that is totally unacceptable.

Supporting women in cinema must start behind the scenes, in production companies and in the imagination that writes the story, and in the radical change of the narrative structure, so it is not correct to treat cinematic films like campaigns launched by human rights organizations.

Focusing on the image of women, and men as well, in cinema is very important, sensitive and difficult, but what is happening now does not serve this image, nor does it help it in any way.

In fact, the unofficial forcing of female directors to address women’s issues only is a violation of her and them, and most importantly, an insult to arts.

I recently watched the movie Enola Holmes (2020) which seemed to answer the rising feminism calls, and in addition to being a boring movie, the dealing with women was direct, crude and very artificial.

Creating a female character in the role of James Bond, or creating a female version of the pirate Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), reflects the amount of ignorance of women’s needs among supporters of this idea, even the women supporters themselves. It is not right to create female characters depending on the ‘remnants’ of men’s roles. It is awful and extremely offensive. It also does the artistic and dramatic meaning behind these characters wrong.

– Do you think films should be subject to the current ‘political correctness’ restrictions? How do you evaluate the impact of these restrictions on cinema?

This matter is related to feminism. I do not think that the film should be controlled by the conditions of political correctness, as being promoted now.

The measures that have been taken in some platforms or some festivals are infuriating. HBO Max has removed Gone with the Wind (1939) from its watch list, and new conditions have been issued by the Oscar’s festival committee. These measures are superficial, secondary and pointless and they exclude great films. They deal with the film as a shopping list, or a manufactured product that must meet quality standards. Moreover, choosing a major role in a film to be performed by a woman, a black person or an LGBTQ, does not stand up for these groups. In the seventies, a genre of films known as ‘Blaxploitation’ or ‘black exploitation’, according to its literal translation, became famous, where all the main characters and most of the secondary ones were black. Indeed, the actress Pam Greer led a number of them, but did that contribute to changing Black people’s conditions? Or to give them any of their rights? What was the result of these films? Most of them were technically poor, and they fell from cinema’s memory.

– What are the things that you miss from cinema of the past?

I miss the impact of the movie. In the past, a single movie would leave a long-lasting impact on its audience. Lately, most movies seem to wipe out each other.

– How do you explain the large number of ‘dystopia’ films from recent times?

All that preoccupies people’s minds escapes from their hands to lend itself to cinema, against their will. Dystopian films have flourished, and will flourish more, due to the fears that shake the contentment of people today, such as war, global warming, climate change, , and the frantic races in scientific experimentation and technological domination. COVID-19 has also added a new tributary to future dystopian films.

– Who do you read of the Arab and foreign critics?

I devote most of my reading time to reading critical books more than reading articles, but in general I am attracted to smooth and surprising writing regardless of its writer.

– Do you think that the excessive film production is a dilemma for you as a critic, especially that it makes following everything almost impossible?

The only dilemma I face regarding cinematic production is the lack of high-quality copies, which use Arabic or English translation, of European, Latin and Asian films, especially the old ones, as well as the near absence of non-Egyptian Arab films, as there are a number of directors from Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria etc. whose films have no viewable copies.

– How do you explain the increasing number of people interested in reading film criticism in the Arab world?

I think that the reason for the popularity of film criticism is that it has emerged from books and publications and become present in social media. One of the effects of social media, which some may see as bad, is that it has taken away the ‘sacredness’ of reading and writing, and thus encouraged people to practice both. Writing does no longer come from the direction of the writer/critic only, but the ordinary viewer is now able to visit the account of such a critic and express an opinion.

Also, the image of the critic is no longer limited to the person who lives in a messy room insulting others.

The ‘sacredness’ of writing has disappeared, and so more people have started to read, because they now have the ability to respond, debate and exchange views.

In the end, there is no permanence or impact except for sober and serious writing, which I think is not very popular yet.

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