Yemenese filmmaker Amr Gamal wrote the first draft of The Burdened in Udaipur. Gamal, who described India as “his favourite country in the world”, travelled to Udaipur a few years ago with the express purpose of isolating himself there and throwing himself into his second feature.
The product is an astounding portrait of present-day Yemen. The Burdened takes place in Aden, amidst the ongoing civil war that has hollowed out Yemen and sent its economy into a tailspin. When Isra’a learns that she is expecting her fourth child, she wants to terminate the pregnancy.
Her husband Ahmed is owed dues from his previous television network job, and is driving a taxi to make ends meet. Aden is no place to bring up a child – there is rampant unemployment, punishing inflation, power and water cuts. Yemen’s strict laws, which allow abortion only if the woman’s life is in danger, combined with religious disapproval of the procedure, make Isra’a’s quest all the more difficult.
Gamal’s second feature is austere, unsparing and gut-wrenching. The 40-year-old filmmaker based his screenplay on a couple he knew, who went through circumstances very similar to those faced by Isra and Ahmed.
“Reflecting on what happened to my friend has made me constantly think about the challenges that other families in my country must be facing – making daily sacrifices just to survive,” Gamal told Scroll. “Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to overlook the Yemen crisis. These thoughts and the details of my friend’s experience have inspired me to start writing this film.”
The Burdened is being screened in the World Cinema section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 8-15). The 91-minute movie has another Indian connection. Its cinematographer is Mrinal Desai, whose credits include Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her (2012) and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014). Desai brings a wealth of experience in documentaries and features to The Burdened, in which the camera documents, witnesses and reveals a couple and a city in tremendous flux.
Yemen and India have historic ties. In the 16th century, Yemen exported mercenaries to India. An essay by Shoaib Daniyal on Scroll points out: “Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat in the 16th century had 10,000 Yemenis in his army and Nana Phadnavis’s Maratha empire employed 5,000 fighters who were the highest paid soldiers in the entire army.”
As a part of the British Empire in the 19th century, Yemen was administered from India. Ships travelled frequently between India and Yemen, transporting goods, merchants, soldiers and workers. The intermingling produced the dish haleem, and influenced future billionaire Dhirubhai Ambani, who worked in Aden in the 1950s (the episode is explored in Mani Ratnam’s Ambani-inspired film Guru).
When Gamal set out to enlist a cinematographer, he had in mind Aden’s rich history as a port that, on account of its racial diversity, has witnessed a backlash from nativists.
“Residents of Aden are often labelled as outsiders by Yemenis from other cities,” Gamal said. “Sadly, a majority of Yemenis, including the government, share the belief that Aden’s historical landmarks, architectural style, and cultural identity are inauthentic. This perception has led to the neglect and deterioration of these significant aspects.”
Indians and the people of Aden created “a shared fabric” over the centuries, Gamal added. “This cultural fusion is evident in our architecture, cuisine, and vocabulary,” he said. Keen to pursue his belief that “cinema is the memory of a nation”, he wanted to make films that archived Aden.
“I wanted to adopt the style of wide shots in cinematography so that each shot in the film captures a building that I fear may be demolished,” Gamal said. “Every building that appears in the film is an important building in the history of Aden over the past hundred years. Every image we’ve hung on the walls is either of a significant personality in the history of Aden or a reference to a historical background connected to the city.”
To this palette, Gamal added a distinctive touch. In several sequences, shots linger for a few seconds after the event has ended. This allows viewers to “absorb the details of the place and the people passing through the frame, along with the sounds of the street, to complete the idea of documenting the city from all perspectives”, Gamal pointed out.
The search for an Indian cinematographer led Gamal to Mrinal Desai. Gamal had watched Court and Amit Dutta’s documentary Nainsukh, about the 18th-century Pahari painter. “Mrinal fully understood my desire to document the city in the background of the film’s events,” Gamal said. “With great skill, he undertook the documentation task without making the audience feel that way or diverting their attention from the main storyline of the film.” Desai doubled up as a mentor to the young crew, Gamal added.
Desai recalls that Gamal tracked him down through the internet in early 2020. “It was immediately clear to me from our early talks and his script, that this would be a film worth shooting,” Desai told Scroll. “Discussions on how to mount the production in a place like Aden, which is going through an unfortunate phase in its history and has very little filming infrastructure, and how to shoot the film went on for over a year. One thing that Amr was clear about from the beginning was that this was not just a story about a family but also a document about Aden.”
The storytelling rhythm – subtle yet powerful, without being rushed – emerged out of “the script at that moment, the dynamics of the spaces we were in, the light and the architecture, and the need to document a disappearing city, its history and its people”, Desai added. “We designed the different scenes into these spaces. We didn’t want to intervene too much so the camera is generally quiet – just observing.”
Yemen has selected The Burdened as its official entry in the Best International Feature Film Category at the Oscars. Gamal’s 2018 debut Ten Days Before the Wedding, about a couple trying to organise their nuptials amidst the civil war, miraculously ran in cinemas for eight months. But there was no shortage of hurdles.
“We produced Ten Days Before the Wedding with a budget that did not exceed 30,000 dollars,” Gamal said. “Due to the destruction of the cinemas in Aden during the 1994 war, we had to rent two wedding halls to screen the film. We built wooden screens measuring five meters by six meters, painted them white, and projected the film on them.”
The Burdened premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and has been touring the international festival circuit since. For The Burdened, Gamal and his producers are pursuing a different distribution strategy.
“We convinced UNESCO and the governor of Aden to renovate an old cinema in the city,” Gamal said. “We promised them that the cinema’s reopening would feature the first screening of The Burdened in Yemen. In doing so, we contribute to the restoration of a cinema that will benefit all artists in the city and the cinema audience.”
Work on the cinema is expected to be completed in three months. The movie’s sensitive subject is a potential point of concern. “However, in the end, we are artists, and true art creates change, stimulates discussion, and encourages debate,” Gamal said. “If all artists fear discussing sensitive and important topics, we will find ourselves collectively producing commercial cinema that does not make a difference in society and leaves no real impact.”
Given Yemen’s continuing agony, films such as The Burdened, and its international acclaim, might be a ray of hope for embattled Yemenese filmmakers.
“The situation here makes hope almost non-existent, and unfortunately, that’s the plain truth without any embellishment,” noted Gamal, who also has extensive theatre experience. “But we have to keep fighting and struggling every day to survive. We can’t stop working and producing films because the determination to work and achieve some dreams is the only thing that keeps your mind busy, preventing despair and depression from swallowing you.”
The Burdened boldly draws a bold parallel between abortion and the throttling of dreams in Yemen. “Regrettably, Yemen has become a country that repels its youth, as everyone flees, resorting to illegal migration in hopes of a better future outside the country,” Gamal said. “When I was deeply touched by my friend’s story and decided to write it as a film, the fetus in Isra’a’s womb became, for me, a symbol representing the dreams and aspirations of 30 million Yemenis, many of whom were forced to abort them due to the harsh conditions in the country.”
Gamal points to a scene in the film in which Ahmed tells his friend about the planned termination. Ahmed’s friend tries to dissuade him from this idea, citing verses from the Quran that prohibit abortion.
“Ahmed responds with a Quranic verse that says, ‘As for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would overburden them by transgression and disbelief,” Gamal said. “This is a reference to a story in the Quran about a prophet named Khidr, whom Allah orders to kill a boy because the boy would cause burdens for his parents in the future, without specifying the nature of the burden. Ahmed relies on this Quranic verse, stating that he will follow the Prophet Khidr’s example, as he already knows that this fetus will undoubtedly burden him, his mother, and his siblings in the future. In our film, the burden represents economic collapse, and for each person, there is their own specific burden.”