Zooming in

Chris Newbould talks to Yemeni independent filmmaker Ziryad Al Ghabri.
Interviews, Content production

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Chris Newbould talks to Yemeni independent film maker Ziryad Al Ghabri about his recent award-winning The Gift Maker – An uncompromising look at life in modern day Sana’a.

In 2010 the British Council in Yemen ran a national film making competition called Zoom. The aim was to find Yemeni amateur filmmakers with talent, determination, original vision and a passion for film making as a way of life.

While conditions for aspiring Yemeni film makers are far from ideal, with a lack of equipment, the threat of terrorism and, more recently civil unrest on the streets, the competition still garnered a number of high quality entries, which were whittled down to five finalists.

From the five, a panel of judges including renowned Yemeni director and producer Dr Fadhl Al-Olofi and British film maker and lecturer David Alamouti selected Ziryab Al Ghabri’s The Gift Maker as the eventual winner.

Al Ghabri’s film is at once unsettling and strangely full of positivity for the future – it tells the tale of a man who makes bombs for his uncle’s unnamed group, living his life in darkness in a basement.

One day, however, the effects of his actions are brought home in the most terrible way, and he elects to finally do good for his fellow man. The film deals with some controversial subjects, including both terrorism and religion, but manages to do so without straying into sensationalism or didacticism.

In Al Ghabri’s own words: “This film tells the story of a young man living under the ground in a basement. He has left all his memories behind and is not certain that he will ever revisit them. Days are identical to him and each corner of the basement seems to be haunted by darkness.

One morning, he begins his day as he always does, but something strange happens – a brick falls out of the wall, letting in daylight.

He tries to block the light that comes in through his new window, but he glimpses something that takes him into a world of his own and changes his life forever.

We have been inspired to make this film by daily events like terrorism and the social discrimination of some parts of Yemeni society. We hope to shoot more films in the future and improve our equipment to create better and more professional films.”

The film was conceieved specifically for the Zoom competition, which required entrants
to make a film on the subject of ‘Yemen’. Al Ghabri takes up the story: “We sat as a group and tried to search for ideas that might be good, and at the same time that we could apply, as we had very little funding, a small crew and limited access to equipment.

“My brother eventually came up with the idea that became the film. My friend Abdurahman, who was also assistant director, then helped me to fix the script, with input from my brother too, and that was the first stage of the film.”

The lack of funding and equipment was clearly a specific challenge for the Yemeni crew – the country is not home to a developed film industry, and economic conditions coupled with social hardship can’t make life any easier for aspiring film makers – how did Al Ghabri manage to get his project off the ground?

“We used pretty simple equipment,” he says. “We had 2 DSLR cameras, a 5d and a 7d – I work as a photographer so we had access to those, but for the light and all the other equipment we had to make most of it ourselves.

The lights, for example, were almost all constructed from electronics we could buy in stores. In fact the one professional light we did hire – a big 1,000 Watt light that we needed for some shots – broke and had to be replaced three times – we never worked out why! The producer, Omar, helped out with making our dolly and other tools for location shooting – it was all very DIY, but that’s how it is here at the moment.

For example, I don’t think there’s a single Red camera in the whole of Yemen, and I only know of one place that stocks Arri. You have to improvise.”

Having seen the film, this comes as a real surprise – the end product certainly doesn’t have the look of an amateur piece shot in a basement with a hastily assembled collection of bedside lamps, and Al Ghabri explains: “My brother acted as DOP and helped with the light. He has a very good understanding of light – everyone played their part.” who was helping us in light

So we’ve established that the shoot itself took place using the bare minimum of professional equipment, but both the look and soundtrack of the finished film suggest otherwise. Did Al Ghabri perhaps work a miracle in post-production? “Not at all,” he assures us.

“In fact we had a lot of difficulty with the audio track. We didn’t know any audio experts to ask for help, and we had no money. In the end we built a small room for sound recording, and we bought some quite good mics – nothing special though, just some normal Chinese mics, they probably cost about $120 – we had a small mixer, again nothing special, and we recorded all the narration and soundtrack like that.

“For the rest of the post work, four of us worked as a team together on all the editing, composition and colour correction on a combination of Adobe Premier, After Effects and Magic Bullet.”

The film took around 40 days to create, from the first shoot to the end of post-production, even more of an achievement considering that the crew, totalling five, were working from 5pm-11pm, mostly around their day jobs, as well as trying to fit their schedule round the actors and availability of equipment.

Having won the competition, the film has received a good degree of publicity, as well as a July London screening at an event organised by the award’s benefactor, the British Council.

I ask Al Ghabri what he thinks the main benefits of winning the award have been: “Actually, the greatest benefit has been that we all worked together and made this film. We all new each other before, but this was the first time we’d worked together on a movie – we’d previously made The Old Lady, but that was only six minutes, so we don’t really consider it a movie. That and, of course, the great chance the British Council gave me with attending a film festival and screening in the UK.”

It’s perhaps noteworthy that the film’s biggest supporter was a foreign organisation, and it’s impossible not to wonder how the situation currently is on the ground for a young film maker in Yemen. Al Ghabri concedes that there are unique challenges to face: “The environment in Yemen is not helping much,” he admits. “We can manage to shoot without permits in some places but in some others we can’t, especially if near a military place or it’s a sensitive area in the city.

“The Canons helped so much because they’re so small and people think they’re a stills camera, so we used that to our benefit, but from the outset we tried to avoid shooting in public places. We didn’t have the time to get permits, for a start, and also our story may not be pleasant to many people, so they’re afraid to let us shoot in a lot of places. They think we’re going to talk about terrorists in Yemen and of course this is a sensitive issue.”

The film certainly doesn’t shy away from the big issues, and they don’t come much bigger than Yemen’s ongoing struggle with terrorists including Al Quaeda on the Peninsula – has there been any reaction from protagonists on either side of the divide? Apparently not, regardless of what preconceptions they may have had. Al Ghabri explains: “After they saw it, everyone has really liked it and come away with a positive image. We showed the consultant of culture and he liked it so much, as well as many others.”

So what are Al Ghabri and his team’s future plans for the film? Will they be looking to hit the festival circuit? Will the British Council be pushing the film further? Wait and see, seems to be the mantra: “At the time being we can’t really do anything until this situation finishes and everything is settled,” says Al Ghabri, referring to the current unrest in Yemen.

“It’s not the best time, but for the future we have lots of plans and ideas for festivals, and we’ll gladly consult the British Council too before any future projects – they have been such a good supporter to us.”

Al Ghabri is one of a limited number of film makers in the oft-misunderstood country struggling to make his voice heard to both his countrymen and international audiences. Indeed, at the last time of checking, only one entry for feature film directors could be found in the Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern Film (Bader Ben Hirsi, who regular readers may remember from his piece on the region’s festivals late last year, and whose latest project we’ll be bringing you soon).

With programmes such as Zoom in place however, and news such as our report last month that Germany’s DW Akademy is to offer training anf upgrading assistance to Yemeni TV, it looks like things may be on the up. Hopefully the likes of Al Ghabri will be at the forefront.

Kit List
- Canon 5D
- Canon 7D
- Adobe Premier
- Red Giant Magic Bullet
- Adobe After Effects

Cast and Crew

Crew
- Ziryab Al-Ghabri – Director/Producer/editor/cameraman/writer
- Abdurahman Hussain – Assistant director/editor/writer
- Omar Wasfi – Producer/music composer/sound mixing/editor/cameraman
- Ahmed Al Shaibah – Music composer
- Ameen Al Ghabri – DOP/cinematography/writer/cameraman/original story

Cast
- Ameen Al-Ghabri ... People #1
- Jumana Al-Shami ... People #4
- Mohammed Aman ... Narrator (voice)
- Majd Farid ... People #3
- Abdulrahman Hussaen ... Paramedic #1
- Omar Wasfi ... Paramedic #1

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