The quote “Revolution begins with the self, in the self”, by African-American author Toni Cade Bambara, perfectly describes the movement kicked off by Yemeni activist and media presenter Samah Shagdari.
Shagdari’s revolution began at sit-ins in Sana’a in 2011, Today, she continues to uphold the principles of anti-violence and sectarianism, but in a different manner.
Shagdari launched an initiative called Sawt Cinema in November 2015, as a form of cultural resistance, criticizing the war and its destruction.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen, according to UN reports. Amid all the death and destruction, nothing seemed as far fetched as the idea of founding a cinema.
A Voice for the Youth
Sawt Cinema takes on a “do it yourself” ethos. Held every week at one of the cafes in Sana’a, with free entrance, feature and documentary films are screened addressing issues related to life during times of war, from sectarianism and recruiting children to the army, to highlighting the importance of coexistence and peace.
Twenty films were screened during the first phase of the initiative, and thirteen during the second phase. The films varied between local, Arabic, and foreign films.
Wa Hala' La Wein (Where Do We Go Now?) from Lebanon was screened to focus on the role of women in renouncing sectarianism. Moreover, the American film Rosewater was screened to highlight dictatorship and enforced disappearance. Yemeni film Al-Rehan Al-Khaser (The Losing Bet) was screened as well; a story about terrorism and the reasons leading youth to join extremist groups in Yemen.
Shagdari and the Sawt Cinema founding team continued working despite endless setbacks; the lack of film theaters in Yemen, violence, dire humanitarian conditions, and restrictions on freedoms during wartime.
“Sawt Cinema is our method of resistance. Nothing stopped us or the audience from setting up screenings, even as the buildings next door were being bombed, and the ground was shaking,” she says. She refuses to talk about the initiative as her own personal achievement, adding that “Sawt Cinema is the result of a group effort from the team and the audience. We all persevered for the success of the initiative, despite the difficult conditions that we are living in.”
Sawt Cinema operates primarily as an outlet to vent about the difficulties of living within the ongoing conflict. The team’s biggest obstacle is the acute polarization faced due to the conflict.
Samed Same’e, Sawt’s media representative, noted that in order to avoid partisanship, they decided to obtain funding from international organizations, such as the Dutch cultural attaché in Yemen, avoiding funds from any of the parties in the conflict.
An initiative seeking to ingrain the principles of peace in Yemen through cinema
Against the constant shower of airstrikes, a group decides to bring cinema to the people of Sana'a
“It was important for the events to attract all political components without favoring any parties in order for the project to succeed,” Shagdari explains.
The crackdown on freedom of expression was another challenge facing the initiative. The Yemeni Houthis have earned the second spot in terms of oppressing freedoms of expression in the world, only bested by Islamic State, according to a Reporters without Borders report.
While Sawt Cinema did not face any direct threats, they have been harassed on numerous occasions. “We ran into harassment and ridicule due to our neutral stance in discussing the current conflict. We are often accused of complicity due to our neutral stance. We try to respond politely to avoid provoking anyone. We also have the support of many social media users, and this popularity works as a form of protection,” Same’e adds.
This popularity nonetheless could not prevent one of the team members, photographer Asaad al-Emad, from being arrested for a while by the Houthis, due to his photojournalistic work outside of the initiative.
Culture Without Funding
Despite Sawt Cinema’s success in the first two phases, they are struggling now due to the absence of sufficient funding to launch the third phase of the project, which targets the goal of using films to strengthen the principles of coexistence and peace.
During the first interview with Samah in 2016, she hoped that Sawt Cinema would find a positive response from more than one funding organization. She was taken by surprise with the lack of interest in the initiative this round. Due to the widespread view that Yemen has become untenably dangerous, potential funders believe it is unsustainable to continue such a project there. The team has been struck by a sense of frustration and defeat, sensing that the international community has turned its back on Yemen.
“Funders explained that the cultural aspect is not a top priority right now, and none of the cultural projects will be taken into account, as there is no budget for it. Their main concerns revolve around human rights, the environment, and good governance issues,” Shagdari notes.
The team is puzzled by the tendency for funders to brush off cultural initiatives, as one of the main aims of such initiatives is to establish the principles of peace. Wameed Shaker, a Yemeni researcher and one of the cinema’s frequenters, concurs with the team, questioning: “If cinema is not a priority during wartime, then what is? News about the battles and the warring fronts? Photos of casualties? The sounds of missiles and aircrafts? Do not leave everything to them [the fighters]. Build a cinema, a theater, and a place for singing and reading poems, and perhaps this may narrow the pace for war and end it.”
Neither the war, nor the catastrophic humanitarian condition, nor the acute polarization were able to stopped the Sawt Cinema team, but rather motivated to complete their project. Despite the halting of funding, the team has begun searching for ways to move on and continue setting up the third phase of the project, with the help of local organizations.
They are also seeking a new strategy for their screenings; allowing volunteers to participate, and inviting the audience to engage in the film choices, according to Same’e. The team hopes to be able to relaunch the screenings soon, as evidence of Sawt Cinema’s resistance and commitment to social responsibility during times of war, with the help of local organizations.