‘The Burdened’ Is Not Your Typical Yemeni Civil War Film

An award-winning movie tells a refreshingly different kind of Middle Eastern story

‘The Burdened’ Is Not Your Typical Yemeni Civil War Film
Poster for “The Burdened.” (Adenium Productions)

“Al Murhaqoon” (“The Burdened”), a Yemeni film, opens with a scene featuring a 30-something married couple listening on their cellphone to a video clip featuring a religious scholar. Esraa (played by Abeer Mohammed) and Ahmed (played by Khaled Hamdan) are seeking a fatwa allowing them to abort an unexpected pregnancy.

The film is one of only two Arabic-speaking productions that featured in the 2023 edition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival and the first Yemeni feature film to be selected for the prestigious Berlinale festival.

“It is a tale of a Yemeni middle-class family suffering the economic consequences of the civil war that broke out in March 2015,” Amr Gamal, the film’s Yemeni director, told New Lines. “They have to make unthinkable sacrifices to skip poverty in postwar Yemen, which means that they cannot afford to raise a fourth child in their native Aden. Otherwise, the family would drown completely in poverty.”

This poignant story, which I had the privilege of witnessing alongside a group of Yemeni friends at the Berlin Film Festival, had a profound effect on me. As we gathered in a full-house screening at a spacious theater in the heart of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on a chilly evening earlier this year, I found myself captivated by how the 39-year-old Yemeni film and theater director depicts the struggles of this middle-class Yemeni family against the pervasive consequences of poverty and conflict that afflict countless individuals in Yemen. His portrayal of Esraa and Ahmed’s struggles to keep a roof over their three children’s heads serves as a stark reminder of the power of cinema to convey the intimate complexities of everyday life of civilians under a war. The 90-minute film offers an atypical narrative from the Middle East that is in stark contrast to the way the country is ordinarily covered in Western media, with the typical emphasis on humanitarian issues, featuring images of starving children.

Had it not been for a friend, who is of both Yemeni and Egyptian descent, urging me to watch the film, I would have never considered voluntarily going to see a movie that revolves around an abortion story set in Yemen. My initial reluctance stemmed from preconceived notions and stereotypes I held, including images of violence, famine and disease, as well as my own lack of knowledge about Yemen.

In contrast to these stereotypes, the protagonists of “The Burdened” are educated parents who used to have well-paying jobs at Aden Television, the second-most popular national TV channel in Yemen. Through the lens of Esraa and Ahmed, the film sheds light on the agonizing decisions forced upon middle-class families in Yemen fighting the fall into destitution. In their case, the breadwinner of a five-member family that is set to expand to six hasn’t received his salary for months because the Houthi militia forces have closed Aden TV. He is determined that an abortion is the right choice even though it is a socially stigmatized practice.

The other partner in the marriage, Esraa, finds herself torn between economic necessity and moral and religious opposition to the procedure, as expressed by their close friend Dr. Muna (Samah Alamrani). At first glance, it appears that the husband has firmly made up his mind about abortion and even tries to persuade his wife to proceed with it, despite her friend’s disapproval. However, when a heated argument ensues between them regarding this decision, as well as the economic hardships, the husband himself breaks into tears in the middle of the kitchen while his wife is preparing a meal, creating one of the most moving scenes in the film.

As an Egyptian woman who was brought up in a patriarchal middle-class family, where boys don’t cry, I appreciated that I could watch, on an international screen, an Arab male character who was not another big macho tough guy. Instead, Ahmed was portrayed as a human being grappling with his internal conflicts while he was striving to reconcile his financial responsibilities toward his family with his religious values.

Following its international premiere, Berlinale’s first Yemeni film won the hearts and minds of the festival’s audience and jury. Gamal returned to Yemen with two awards as “The Burdened” placed second in the running for the Panorama Section’s Audience Award and also received the Amnesty International Film Award.

“The Audience Award proves that cinema is an international language and an important means of communication with people from various cultures. It means a lot to us that they appreciate our story of Yemen,” Gamal told New Lines.

This is a significant moment for Yemeni cinema and its filmmakers, not only because they are self-taught, in the absence of art institutions, but also because many of them had to leave Yemen to Europe in recent years due to the war, including Osama Khaled, the 28-year-old native of Sanaa who has been living in Berlin since 2018.

“It gives me hope because Amr is here: screening a movie, talking about Yemen, and reaching [international] audiences that we cannot reach through the news,” said Khaled.

“The Burdened” draws inspiration from a true story known to Gamal.

“This is the story of one of my closest companions,” he said. “I was present when they made their initial attempt to undergo an abortion during their third pregnancy. This occurred in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, around 2011. However, they ultimately withdrew their decision due to the immense societal and moral pressure they faced. Adding another child to the family would only increase their burden. The father, in particular, perceived the child as a burden. Nonetheless, when another unexpected pregnancy arose after the 2015 war, their determination to proceed with an abortion became resolute.”

Gamal, who is a fan of Arabic literature, considers abortion a metaphor for Yemenis’ aborted hopes and dreams of living in dignity.

“It’s more than an abortion film,” Gamal said. “It is a social-economic story that narrates the collapse of a state in the aftermath of a war. How everything in the background also is burdened.”

“Abortion is only one layer of the storyline,” said another Yemeni-Egyptian friend and international humanitarian specialist. “The core of the film is the struggle to survive. We’re talking about mundane aspects of daily life: water, electricity and food.”

As a member of the Egyptian diaspora myself, I thought of abortion as a metaphor for the failed hopes of the so-called Arab Spring.

“After the revolution, we had high prospects, hopes and dreams. We thought we were going to write a new constitution and cinema is going to be thriving again,” said Rana Jarhum, another Yemeni exile who fled the country for Berlin in 2019. I experienced similar waves of sadness and rage after watching my Cairo from abroad onscreen for the first time.

In “The Burdened,” Gamal lets the viewer feel the burden of dire living conditions without burdening the narrative with melodrama. He clearly doesn’t beg the audience for empathy. Rather, he said, “my style of filmmaking is to invite the audience to observe the nuances of postwar daily lives and contemplate them.”

Gamal, who shares screenwriting credits with Mazen Refaat, employed the “show not tell” technique in the early scenes to infuse urgency and a sense of unsettling with which the protagonists grapple. We notice moving boxes and suitcases in the background, denoting the search for a cheaper house, as they cannot afford to pay the increased rent of their current flat. The rustiness of the floor and walls of the new house is another visual indication of the collapse of the protagonists’ social class. We continue to visually follow their day-to-day struggles manifested in power cuts and being forced to haul water from the street to the kitchen.

The dialogue between the characters doesn’t touch explicitly on the topic of war but it is visually represented in military checkpoints in the streets and footage of buildings destroyed due to bombings. There are some appearances by uniformed soldiers, including Ahmed’s brother-in-law, a secondary character who exemplifies how the social fabric was flipped upside down because of the war, making the worst parts of society rise to the top. The brother-in-law, who used to be a “loser” in the eyes of the family, with no degree or profession, has now gained great influence in post-2015 Yemen through his affiliation with a military group. The extended family of the protagonists even think of the educated but burdened father as a loser for lacking his brother-in-law’s powerful connections and influence.

An essential part of the couple’s struggle is to keep providing for their children with dignity. In a very degraded environment, Esraa and Ahmed hold high self-regard: The educated husband takes on a job as a driver following the loss of his previous employment, while his wife resorts to selling her jewelry to cover expenses for their children’s education.

Although the life circumstances of the characters are dire, there is a gentleness to the depiction of the drama surrounding them. Gamal sought to emphasize the ubiquity of normal acts of life even amid war, as in a scene where the father takes his three kids to a stationery store to buy school supplies and books to read.

“Normality happens on the side of any conflict. We should seek to look at humanity in Yemen,” said Jarhum, who pointed out other heartwarming moments of normality and community. In one, we visit the old house of Ahmed’s parents with wooden stairs, where the extended family sits together to share a meal on the floor. Another scene shows the grandmother taking care of her grandchildren. Even though the three kids are a burden, the interactions among them as they giggle in the background lighten the melancholy of the daily struggles of their parents. On different occasions, Ahmed and Esraa’s friends and family members lend them money, even though the couple hasn’t asked for it.

For the Yemeni diaspora, it was a rare occasion to watch a film from home about home at an international festival.

“You barely hear anything about Yemen in the international media, and it is very rare to get the full picture of life there,” Waleed told me. While they had mixed feelings about the film, none left traumatized, unlike the audiences of other Arab films that gained international recognition, such as “Capernaum.” The 2019 drama delves into the gritty underbelly of society, shedding light on the struggles faced by children living in poverty, undocumented immigrants and the marginalized segments of society, and is high on pathos.

“Arab filmmakers can really, like, go through the road of trauma dumping on the viewer,” Jarhum said.

The cinematography of Aden’s various districts and landscapes leaves me with the impression that the city itself plays a leading role in the storyline of “The Burdened.” To some extent, it feels like a documentary film about Gamal’s hometown. The majority of the film’s scenes were filmed in a single continuous shot that authentically depicts the location, its inhabitants, their movements within the city and even the interior of the houses, such as the old wooden house of the extended family. The camera moved through different parts of the house from the stairs to the living room to the wide balcony.

He confessed that he is preoccupied with an existential fear of losing the city as he knows it, which will be a result of the absence of a state. “Filmmaking is my own way to preserve the cultural heritage of Aden,” he said. “Cinematography highlights the charm of a city that witnessed the arrival of cinema in Yemen more than a century ago, when films were first shown in Aden in 1918. Aden was a British colony and then we became socialists, where many of our ancestors studied art in the Soviet Union.”

Aden has a rich history that spans thousands of years. As a port city, it has served as a crucial trading hub, connecting Africa, Asia and Europe since ancient times. Its strategic location on the Arabian Peninsula made it an important stop along the maritime Silk Road, attracting merchants and sailors from various cultures. Aden’s significance extended beyond its economic role, as it also emerged as a historical center, witnessing the rise and fall of numerous empires and civilizations. Over the course of the civil war, Aden’s numerous historical landmarks suffered damage.

While the film depicts ordinary life in the city, it also sheds light on its diverse heritage. It includes footage of the neglected Catholic Church of St. Francis of Assisi in the Tawahi district.

“We need to see more films from Yemen made by Yemeni filmmakers about people who are not defeated yet,” Jarhum said.

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