Since the end of the twentieth century Yemen has experienced a very strong religious reaction to music, theatre, cinema and any kind of public entertainment, admitted only in special occasions (weddings) or in TV shows. Theaters and public cinemas are closed and it is not possible to watch screenings except in particular places, such as foreign embassies or cultural institutes, by private invitation.
Aden, more than other cities is the most active city on this side and many artist operates publicly, despite fatwas and religious bans. Just to give an example, during the First Aden Singing Festival in 2008 the famous Syrian singer Assala Nasri was threatened of death should she have decided to appear on stage. The threats come from al-Qaeda, allegedly supported by Yemeni Islamic religious figures, and give the idea of the amount of courage it takes for Yemeni artists to perform in public.
Weddings and special private occasions are the substitutes of the public sphere for artists, and in private meetings it’s possible to meet very famous Yemeni singers of local music, classic Arabic music or oud players. Their performances are often very popular on YouTube. After the 2011 Revolution, many Yemeni filmmakers tried to come up with their own productions.
The group of activists, artists, filmmakers and directors active under the name of Comra Films is very famous. It was founded by Sarah Ishaq, a dual-citizenship Yemeni-British director, who produced Karama has no walls (2012) nominated for best short documentary at the Academy Awards of 2014. Comra offers many services to companies like Avaaz, media industries like BBC and al Jazeera, NGO’s like Save the Children, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, International Organisations like WFP, and has already produced some movies about daily life in Yemen during the war. Some of Comra’s filmmakers received threats during their stays in Sana’a and asked asylum in other countries, including countries in North America.
In 2018, the city of Aden has gone through a timid revival in arts, performing and cinema. In September 2018, the Eid al-Adha Festival in Aden showed new movies, including Ana Nojoom bent alasherah wamotalagah (I am Nojoom, age 10 and divorced, 2014) by the France-based Yemeni director, Khadija al-Salami. The film told the real-life story of Nojoud Ali, a 10-year-old child bride who rebelled against her father’s decision to marry her off. I am Nojoom is a foreign production, despite the director being Yemeni.
The year 2018 has seen a renaissance of Yemeni cinema. Yemen’s first locally produced film in years, Ten days before the wedding, has proved itself a hit with audiences and critics alike. The film tells the story of a young couple whose marriage plans were nearly derailed by the war in Yemen. Amr Gamal, the film’s director, told al-Jazeera: “We wanted a movie to show what’s going on inside the homes of this city and the country as a whole and how families have been affected by the state of the economy, and how the hopes of young people have collapsed.”
Another film directed in 2018 is Yemen: The Silent War. The short documentary depicts the Yemen War through the viewpoint of Yemeni refugees living in Markazi Refugee Camp. The film debuted with a positive reception, both the hand animation technique and its ability to capture the brutality of the civil war has been praised.