Comra filmmaking camp: Humanising Yemenis' hopes and struggles

Nourhan Tewfik , Wednesday 2 Sep 2015

Ahram Online speaks to Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq about her latest project, the Comra filmmaking camp

For a Loaf of Bread
(Photo: Still from film 'For a Loaf of Bread')

“These days, sometimes we are able to play. Other times we can’t because of the war. I tell myself I wish the war would end,” says a Yemeni child, the protagonist of For a Loaf of Bread, a four-minute film that portrays a childhood interrupted by war and walks us through the child’s fears and aspirations.

This is the first of four short films produced by Comra, an intensive two-week filmmaking/photo essay camp organised by co-founders of #SupportYemen-an independent media collective founded in 2011 that uses film to document struggles and bring about social change.

Yemeni filmmakers Sara Ishaq and Abdurrahman Hussain, also the producer, function as the camp’s lead trainers.

The camp took place from 1-14 July 2015 at the premises of the #SupportYemen media collective and ran from 10am until midnight on a daily basis during Ramadan. The films were done under the theme “24 of war” and the remaining three films will be published on Vimeo over the upcoming weeks. A screening of all films is scheduled for Wednesday 2 September in Sanaa.

For A loaf of bread | حق لقمة العيش from SupportYemen on Vimeo.


Devising the intervention

Residing in Egypt when the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen began, Ishaq was frustrated by her inability to document what was unfolding on the ground. She launched the Kefaya War campaign to encourage Yemenis to post personalised videos of what they were doing at home as the war went on. While the campaign took off in a different direction, the intention to document was still there.

“There are hardly any independent films coming out of Yemen—and when they do, the standard is not as high as it is in the rest of the Arab region, and the reason for this is that there exists no place for people to study film and there isn’t a film culture,” Ishaq explains to Ahram Online through a Skype interview from Yemen.

Now back in Yemen, Ishaq worked with Hussain on a film workshop proposal, which they submitted to the British Council. The British Council would provide the needed funding, and the Sanaa-based #SupportYemen office space would host the camp.

Next, the team spread the call through their networks on Facebook, and was surprised to find a huge turnout of interested participants. Besides the 12 chosen participants, a few more were allowed to attend some of the lectures and lessons during the course of the camp.

“We only managed to recruit two girls, since many either had kids or had commitments at home during the day given that it was Ramadan. Also, leaving that late at night was obviously problematic for some.”

The camp curriculum, which Ishaq drew up based on her MFA degree in film directing from the University of Edinburgh, was a varied one, comprising theory, history of film, different approaches to documentary film, ethics of filmmaking, and the pre-production, production, and post production phases.

For Ishaq and Hussein as the camp’s lead instructors, the priority “was to equip participants with the tools needed to make films that are not the conventional TV-style documentary but actually ones that start breaking the mould a little bit and introduce more artistic documentary filmmaking to Yemen.”

The second week comprised screenings of documentary films from around the world, which were followed by Skype sessions with some of these films’ directors and also with artists working in conflict situations. Artists and street photographers also came to the premises where they discussed the meaning of art in conflict.

The main focus, Ishaq asserts, was to “teach participants how to tell a story in a humane, and universal manner, rather than focusing on the technicalities of switching on a camera, or editing.”

Comra film camp
Comra film camp (Photo: Mohammed Al-Mekhlafi, #SupportYemen)

On humanising life in a war setting

Participants were split into groups of three, and challenged to complete the filming process in a maximum of two days. This was a difficult task in a setting where people are often detained for holding cameras. To circumvent this risk, Ishaq showed the participants films from around the Arab region, which were made indoors from start to finish. 

“I wanted them to understand they needn’t be in danger to be able to tell a deep story about the human condition, by giving insight into the people’s struggles, and also their hopes as they suffer the war,” Ishaq asserts.

Participants received advice on how to develop a connection with their films’ characters and be “intuitive enough to be able to connect to your human instinct and from there connect with the person in front of you.” They were also trained to maintain this rawness while editing by “splitting their senses in a way and focusing on the auditory, then visual side of their material, then trying to combine the two of them as one thing that’s more evocative and a lot more genuine and emotional.”

Participants had to divide up the footage of the film, watch the footage without sound, analyse the images, and then listen to the audio without seeing any images. The result was short films about different aspects of the war, which would together seek to remind people in Yemen and abroad that, “there are millions of these children (like the child we see in For A Loaf of Bread) who go through exactly the same experience. It’s meant to get people to sympathise and empathise with all that,” she continues.

The process was not without its challenges. Given the almost complete lack of electricity in all of Yemen, a good amount of the team’s budget was used towards securing fuel, which at that point was very scarce, to run power generators for the duration of the camp.

The situation was further exacerbated by constant anti aircraft missiles and sounds of explosions. The team also tried to evade the omnipresence of checkpoints by scheduling daylong lessons.

“There was even a case of one student being detained by the Houthis on his way to the course because he was carrying his camera, but they eventually released him,” Ishaq adds.

Since the end of the camp, the team has produced another short film titled Baraa, which focuses on Yemeni children who have been injured or killed during the war.

“I thought it would be a good idea to continue making these short films even after the end of the camp, and to include some of the students in the #SupportYemen network.” 

Now, #SupportYemen comprises a five-member filmmaking team. The objective is to create a network of Yemen-based filmmakers who could facilitate working on film projects in the future.

“Before, when I’d be in Egypt or anywhere else, I would find it very frustrating if I wanted to focus on a story but could not come to Yemen. There would be nobody that I could pick up the phone and ask to go and film a certain thing. But now, since the workshop has ended, I trust that I can collaborate with the participants. I trust their work, and the way they think,” Ishaq adds.

In the future, and when the situation becomes less intense, Ishaq hopes to run similar film camps and workshops across Yemen. 

Comra film camp
Comra film camp (Photo: Mohammed Al-Mekhlafi, #SupportYemen)

On hope as a personal pursuit

There’s also a very personal element to producing art in times of conflict, as Ishaq proceeds to explain.

“The conflict is draining, it saps your mental energy, and your will to carry on, and in a way being creative keeps you alive, and keeps your soul vital.”

Therefore, it was important to push the participants to “constantly try—even in a very dark and bleak situation—and derive some kind of inspiration out of their surroundings.”

This attempt at reaching for hope in the midst of chaos underpins the film camp’s name ‘Comra’; a term originally coined by the prominent 11th century Arab philosopher and scientific thinker Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham. 

“He discovered that if you have a dark room and put a hole in the wall, a ray of light would be allowed in and would do what the camera does. In this way, Comra becomes the original word for camer,” Ishaq asserts.

Comra’s symbolism also characterises Ishaq’s own attempts at seeking a hint of normalcy in the midst of chaos, as a filmmaker but also as a yoga instructor “in search of balance, given how filmmaking is so stressful, especially when you’re in a conflict zone, and dealing with emotional and tragic situations.”

For Ishaq, who gives yoga lessons at the #SupportYemen premises and is starting sessions with a group of mostly girls this week, yoga practice is not just a physical practice, but also a way of being present and pushing yourself to the mat when you feel that you cannot do it.

“It has also moved into my filmmaking. I wake up in the morning and feel the weight of the world is on my shoulders, and that its such a difficult time to be doing anything, but I still get up and still get my camera ready, get in a taxi and go do it. It’s important to me to remember to be present, to remember that things are transient, that things change and that I have to focus on myself as much as possible to be able to sustain it, otherwise I won’t.”

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