the bravest girl in yemen
Issue #3 of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films, is at newsstands & bookstores now. While it also features the early work of Alexander Payne & Dennis Hopper, it's the documentary by Khadija al-Salami that will stay with you. Born in 1966 & said to be Yemen's first female filmmaker, al-Salami escaped an arranged marriage at age eleven when she attempted suicide, after which her mother helped Khadija obtain a divorce. The girl who had been criticized throughout her childhood for a rebellious personality went on to find work at a local television station, which enabled her at sixteen to afford secondary education in the United States (she eventually received a master's degree in communications); she has since made approximately twenty documentaries. Family relatives who once opposed her now say she is a role model for their daughters.
So it is no surprise that al-Salami would immediately connect to a thirteen-year-old girl she spotted one day in the streets of their hometown, Sana'a. In an interview with McSweeney's, the director explains that while touring a group of French journalists around the old city as part of her job at the Yemeni embassy in Paris, she noticed Nejmia, an unveiled teenager who freely roamed & played with the boys in the neighborhood. "Fortunately, I had my camera with me and started shooting spontaneously," al-Salami recalled. The result is "A Stranger in Her Own Country" (2005). At the beginning of the 29-minute chronicle, the filmmaker observes (in voiceover) that it is only in the last fifteen years that her city has taken on an austere air: the glittering dresses of the women have been replaced with "phantoms"--figures covered in black from head to foot. Although this is persistently cited as Moslem tradition, the veil actually dates from the Byzantine era & is not a creation of Islam, she says.
Nejmia, ponytailed, bright eyed & with an impish smile, says of her veiled compatriots, "They're crazy. I like fresh air." The film director follows the girl as she rides a bicycle (unheard of for a girl in al-Salami's day, & clearly unusual in the 21st century as well), plays soccer & field hockey, & fends off a continuous stream of insults from strangers with clever, bold comebacks. "Put on your veil," a man hisses as he slides past. "It's none of your business, you fundamentalist!" Nejmia shoots back with a confident grin. Joking aggression is the order of the day: after kidding good-naturedly with her, three men in a large group lounging on a street corner describe the particular methods they'd use to tie up Nejmia if she were their sister, including hanging her from her feet with an electrical cord. One of them asserts that women are a disgrace & "flawed from start to finish." Nejmia scores the winner, though: "Why don't you all get jobs? Why are you hanging out here day after day?" And like everyone who knows her, the men laugh--despite themselves, they admire her. In fact, one of the most heartening moments occurs when the imam of the Great Mosque appears on camera. Putting an affectionate arm around Nejmia, he declares, "This girl is the smartest in the neighborhood! She is worth five boys!" The imam does not interpret Islamic teachings to mean that women are the inferior gender. "Let her play," he says with kind authority, planting a kiss on the girl's forehead.
Seven months after the documentary was shot, Nejmia's father put a stop to the girl's education & ordered her to wear the veil. A year later, "A Stranger in Her Own Country" won the grand prize at the Beirut Film Festival. The president of Yemen heard the news & asked al-Salami to show him the film, after which he offered to pay for Nejmia's schooling. The girl went back to the classroom, & in November 2006 some Wholphin subscribers, similarly inspired by this courageous portrait, started a college fund for Nejmia (contact email@example.com for more information).
Khadija al-Salami has since filmed the story of Amina al-Tuhaif, who was sentenced to death in 1999 after being unfairly convicted at the age of fourteen for murdering her husband, whom she'd been forced to marry two years before. She has been imprisoned for nine years. When "Amina" was screened at the Dubai 3rd international film festival last year, the place was mobbed, & hundreds of attendees could not get tickets.