INTERVIEW: Oscar-nominated Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq's search for identity

Ati Metwaly , Wednesday 28 Jan 2015

On 1 February, Zawya will screen Sara Ishaq's Oscar-nominated Karama Has No Walls and host Egypt's premiere of her film The Mulberry House. Ahram Online talks to the filmmaker about her work, and her identity crisis

Sara Ishaq
Sara Ishaq sits in Cairo's Falak coffee shop. (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Sara Ishaq, the Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker's name is immediately identified with the 2013 Oscar nominated Karama Has No Walls, a film documenting the Yemeni Friday of Dignity, that transports the viewer to the events in Sanaa's Change Square. With minimal dialogue, shocking images of the massacre and its aftermath, the film is a powerful portrayal of the human experience and pain of the protesters and their families.

Coming from the same filmmaker, the documentary titled The Mulberry House (Bayt Al-Tout) is set in the backdrop of Ishaq's family, only to reveal the many elements that contributed to Ishaq's formation and her struggles standing in between two contradictory cultures. The viewer is offered threads that intertwine with the Yemeni revolution, Yemeni customs and Middle Eastern traditions, family life, and expectations and longings expressed by three generations. While for viewers, The Mulberry House is a window into Ishaq's personal life and a behind the scenes glimpse of Karama Has No Walls, for the filmmaker the film becomes a healer of her personal crisis.

Both films were shot simultaneously and while they stand alone well, they complete one another. Karama Has No Walls is a tribute to a tragedy experienced by the Yemeni nation, while The Mulberry House is an answer to the many personal questions that the filmmaker was asked about the Oscar-nominated documentary from people curious to know more details about the Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker behind this documentary.

To address questions about the films and how they transformed Ishaq's life, Ahram Online met the filmmaker in a cosy artistic coffee shop in Cairo.

Ahram Online (AO): When in 2011 you went to Yemen you planned to spend 10 days there and work on a very personal film. You ended up staying several months and brought back to Scotland footage for two powerful documentaries. Can you walk us through the chronology of the making of those two films?

Sara Ishaq (IS): Originally I wanted to make a short film about my grandfather, who is a writer. I didn't expect it to be screened anywhere outside the university (the Edinburgh College of Art).

I landed in Yemen on 18 February 2011, shortly before the largest students protests outside Sanaa University began. As the events unfolded, I bumped into people from the BBC and cooperated with them, without thinking about filming the events yet. My uncle knew things were getting worse and asked me to leave, while this is exactly when I wanted to stay longer. I kept postponing my return to Scotland. At this point I felt more Yemeni than ever. I felt useful and involved. On 18 March, the Friday of Dignity took place. I was at home, filming my family.

AO: Karama Has No Walls is a depiction of a massacre on that day. At this moment, filming for The Mulberry House from home gave you an opportunity to present a deeply touching human aspect of people's reactions to the images broadcast by television channels.

SI: Interestingly, the majority of important footage that I have in The Mulberry House was actually shot on that specific day: my grandfather exercising in the garden, children picking and eating mulberries, a small argument between family members. And as I walked from the garden into the house I saw the news on the television.

Karama Has No Walls
(Photo: Still from Karama Has No Walls)

AO: Is this when you decided to make a documentary that would become Karama Has No Walls?

SI: Yes, I attended funerals, went to the field hospital, met many people ... With the support of Abdulrahman Hussein, who became Karama's assistant director, we collected 70 hours of footage, reached families of the victims, etc. I stayed four additional months, during which I had an opportunity to continue working on The Mulberry House. Starting with 18 March, it was all going simultaneously; I was filming non-stop, almost obsessively. I was very enthusiastic about what it was all doing for Yemen.

AO: While Karama Has No Walls captures the human within the massacre, the people's pain, anger and disappointment, The Mulberry House looks at a family as a small cell that is surrounded, involved in as well as affected by, socio-political developments. However, The Mulberry House also touches on many personal issues that echo in your past, doesn't it?

SI: I was born in Scotland and then we all moved to Yemen. My parents divorced when I was six and my mum moved back to Scotland when I was 15. I stayed with my dad. During the first years, my dad was an amazing, encouraging and involved father, this wonderful guy you see with my younger sisters in the movie. He had some non-Middle Eastern ideas which started changing when he returned to Yemen. There was a lot of pressure from society and traditional concepts started affecting him. He even had an idea of finding a husband for me, when I was only 15. This added to the rupture between us and when I was 17 I left to Scotland and didn't see my Yemeni family for many years. Now he is back to being the man he used to be. He must have been very confused between wanting to be a progressive dad and being a man respecting traditions.

AO: Cultural issues seem to be at the core of many topics tackled in The Mulberry House and isn't it your rejection of Yemeni customs in the past that moved you to making a film about your family?

SI: There was always this cultural conflict. I was always different, like an outcast. When living in Yemen I didn't like the dress code, or social life. When I left to Scotland I continued to fuel myself with those thoughts. I see now how at times my mind was shaping ideas that were not always representative of my Yemeni family.

AO: Did you use the camera to come to terms with your troubled past?

SI: In a way, the camera became a shield from my family. I started looking at them as an artist and an anthropologist, with a very objective eye for the sake of studying them. It is when I took a distance that I started noticing interesting issues in them. I looked at them as interesting characters and I started liking them. Bit by bit, we started getting closer, discovering how similar we are ...

The Mulberry House
(Photo: Still from The Mulberry House)

AO: The Scottish-Yemeni juxtaposition is an element that contributed to your identity crisis, which was behind your travel to Yemen. Then instead of making a film about your grandfather you soon shifted to an evaluation of your father. At the core of this transformation isn't it actually all about you? Aren't you the one using the camera to reach purification?

SI: Definitely! They say art has healing value and this is exactly what happened with The Mulberry House. It was a very cathartic experience; a time when many wounds healed. The process of communicating with my dad, spending a long time with him and gradually seeing him become supportive of my work as a filmmaker, and my life, made me more involved. Not only I found that I have more in common with the Yemeni people, society, the revolution, but I discovered a lot in common with my own family. 

AO: This change is very obvious throughout the movie. I remember the scene when your dad reads to your grandfather an article about you in Yemen Times. He is very proud, and happy. It is also a great scene of a documentary. Was this a spontaneous moment captured on camera or you asked your characters to replay a conversation for the purposes of the film?  

SI: It was all very natural. This was shot when they got so used to my camera that they were no longer bothered. My face and eye was associated with the camera and they would talk to me normally forgetting that I was holding something. That's the amazing access I had to the family.

AO: Did Karama Has No Walls and The Mulberry House help you define your identity?

SI: Yes. When as a teenager I left to Scotland. I cut myself completely from my Yemeni or Arab roots. This whole experience showed me that I can be both. Now I am Scottish and Yemeni, living in Egypt.

AO: The whole experience introduced many changes in your life, on artistic and personal levels. Did the Oscar-nomination open new doors to you?

Si: It's funny that I get less job offers now since the Oscar nomination than I did before. It seems people think that I've so much work or that I'm not approachable, and this is not the case. However, I take this time to refresh my thoughts. The past years were very hectic, especially with the Oscars and all the media attention.

AO: Do you plan a trilogy?

SI: I still don't know what I'll do next, but definitely it won't be anything about my family or revolution.

Screenings of Karama Has No Walls and The Mulberry House will begin at Zawya, at 6.30pm, 1 February 2015.
The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Sara Ishaq.
Odeon Cinema, 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown Cairo

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