Framing Conflict: Film in a Time of War
Art and life, two sides of the same coin. For the longest time, it has been viewed as an expression of life. Writers write what they experience, painters are closely impacted by their surroundings, and moviemakers engage audiences with relatable characters. Art has been a tool to interpret emotions, impulses, purity and sinfulness: it is used to depict life. However, it is not a one-way endeavor; art has also been a change catalyst. Along with portraying life with all its turbulence, it changes the way we view the world and the limits we inflict upon ourselves. Art has the ability to create a space for us to breathe, know ourselves, and support and push people towards becoming better. This power to influence societies has been understood by many dictators over the centuries; and so they have censored art and allowed only pieces that support their propaganda. No one would be surprised to learn that the influence of directed art was at its peak during World War II, with a ministry of propaganda established in Germany during this period, its main purpose to sift through art and allow only the pieces that would help advance the Nazi agenda.
Human experience molds and directs our views about art. Good art is known for its capacity to engage the senses, charm minds, change thoughts and perspectives, and create questions while trying to generate answers. Films are bridges between our realities and ourselves and between different communities and us. They act to erase the spaces that separate us. They eliminate the sense that we are untouched by tragedies others endure, and create empathy. Well-made movies are not an escape from reality; they are realities waiting to happen.
Comra Films and Yemen Art-Base are two foundations creating art and film communities in Yemen and nurturing talented individuals. Sara Ishaq, Comra founder and an Oscar-nominated director (nominated for Karama Has No Walls, depicting the events of the peaceful uprising of 2011 in Yemen), and Yousra Ishaq, a Yemeni producer, co-founder of Comra and founder of Yemen Art-Base, have created and developed the small community of artists they have known and worked with over recent years. They say the best thing you can give human beings is the ability to use their own voices and express their opinions. Building a community helps generate the feeling of belonging, and art is the perfect venue for self-expression. “Just as cinema and art can be an escape from reality, we try to offer a similar form of escapism and refuge through the Comra Film Community/Yemen Art-Base. We have made it a priority to create and maintain a safe space for anyone with a love for filmmaking, cinema and art to express themselves and share their ideas freely with like-minded people”, explained Sara. Opening new roads towards creativity and self-expression is the way toward supporting artists and pushing the limits. “We are aiming to increase the capacity of filmmakers and artists in general, we expose them to different forms of media worldwide through our training, and bringing experts who have different experience in media, and these people get involved with our trainees”, explained Yousra.
Yemeni women: Art and conflict
“Wherever war and violence exist, women exist — and they have things to tell us”, says Sanam Anderlini, a peace activist. As the world aims to solve complex political problems, women have taken a central role in these conflict landscapes. The war has affected mental and physical health, drains economic status, and threatens the security and future of children by exposing them to violence while hindering access to education. However, women have found ways to creatively and resourcefully promote peace and engage with the community.
Yemeni women have been depicted in the media as suppressed, uneducated and helpless. No one sees the women standing tall trying to resolve conflicts, protecting their families and aspiring for a better future. Women who used to stay at home and rely on their husbands to provide for the family have been pushed to generate income. They have had to break the limitations placed on them in their traditional society by finding work and playing a key role in family survival. Every day, the markets are crowded with women selling vegetables and home-baked bread. The faces of working women dominate every field. Everywhere you go you find women fighting hard for life. Before the war, it was rare for women in many areas to leave their homes and interact with men in public places. In spite of the terror and suppression Yemeni women experience, they show resilience and empowerment due to their active participation in building peace and surviving the conflict. One example is that of Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemeni woman working since 2005 to implement programs in remote tribal areas, dealing directly with different factions to help promote the culture of conflict management and conflict-sensitive development.
Women from every place inside this fractured country have risen to the challenge with every means possible. Shining the light on such great role models helps empower other women to lead by example. Being a role model is not something you choose, it is living your life in the service of individuals and the community. “I think the fact that two women are behind Comra and Yemen Art-Base already sends a message about the role women can play in the country if they want to, and with the right kind of support from their families and community”, Sara explained. The media depicts the darkest side of every possible situation, but hope is reclaimed by shining the light on women gathering around each other, listening and lending their voices to those who have been muted. “We do a lot of work that focuses on women’s issues at Comra Films. I am currently developing a feature film about women in Yemen. It’s our goal to train as many women filmmakers in the coming period, and hopefully bring more of them into our team. I think that we are women who make films about women, and to have a space that is welcoming and safe for women is what makes us potentially empowering to women”, Sara added.
Empowering youth and changing the narrative
Societies are measured by their contributions to art. Yemen is a country where talented people live under layers of poverty, religious misconceptions and war. But artistic expression has been woven into the fabric of this society. From colorful fabric prints to its deep musical heritage, art is never a rarity in this country, no matter what obstacles exist.
The story told through moving frames captures the connection through emotions. Films have the power to change fundamental perspectives. Creating feelings of pride and compassion, love and disgust, and right and wrong are all in the hands of capable moviemakers. Yemen is going through political agitation, allegiances are changing and opinions are confused every day. Many of the vital needs of society are crushed and ignored under the weight of big political concerns. “In a time when most – if not all – media coverage of Yemen is politicized, polarized and one-dimensional, giving young filmmakers the support, the uncensored space and ‘permission’ to tell their own stories – the way they want them to be told – is the most empowering thing we, as filmmaking mentors, can offer them”, explained Sara, on the role of filmmakers in Yemen and their duty towards young talent.
Youth usually experience a sense of disorientation, often creating experiences through experimenting. Free-spirited and wild, they live their best years with a carefreeness. But a different story takes place in countries suffering the ramifications of war. Films and art act as a breather for young adults to express their feelings, and finding a community that encourages and nurtures their talents and ideas is of the utmost importance. “Surprisingly, the effect of war on the art field is a double-edged sword… with the extreme stress and insecure situation that these artists are facing, they actually find a space to work more on their art, and they use their art to run away from reality, but also to document what they are facing on a daily basis through their own eyes. The war expanded their vision and let them see the world in a different form; it might have sorrow and pain, but maybe the bad situation got the best out of them”, explained Yousra on the sense of catharsis art provides for artists during a period of war and rigorous religious beliefs. Instead of getting lost in a state of limbo, the art and film community created by Comra and Yemen Art-Base has acted as a community of openness and creativity that shields youth from the bigger community of war and aggression. Art is a message, and being able to find your message and deliver your voice builds character and changes society.
Anyone can deny the importance of art, labeling it a waste of time, or simply a sin. Artists get power and energy from creating and using their work to push dogmas away. They produce a sense of beauty in societies and elevate the general appetite for art. They say you choose your battles in life, and in these battles, you choose the tools to move forward. “I believe that the true history was written by artists, not politicians, if you want to know more about the history of a certain country, you should go to museums, and see the paintings and the artwork. And this is what we trying to achieve”, Yousra adds. The sense of pride and patriotism you get after watching a movie depicting soldiers fight battles to save lives and countries; the magic of a romance told many times but which is different every time, conjuring memories of lost dreams and attained aspirations. The magic of art is its ability to search through every part of our memories, create new realities, and give people the much needed space of escape and expression.