By Kendra Sitton | Editor
The eighth annual San Diego Arab Film Festival kicked off its program with “10 Days Before the Wedding.” The April 5 opening show at the Museum of Photographic Arts sold out and had a waitlist, as audience members clamored to watch the first movie made in Yemen in more than 40 years.
The excitement of U.S. audiences mirrored the huge popularity the film enjoyed while playing in Yemen. The movie, in which a couple faces hurdles in the lead-up to their nuptials, was the first to open commercially in Yemen in over three decades when it began showing in 2018. With no theaters to show the film, two wedding halls in Aden were outfitted with wooden screen panels each day to form makeshift movie theaters. The film’s creators only expected to show the film for 10 days, but due to high demand, it kept showing for six months and sold more than 60,000 tickets.
Now, the producer and director are taking the film intended for Yemeni audiences around the world.
In its April 5 San Diego premiere, the audience watched the movie hit the familiar beats of a typical romantic comedy with a montage of a day in the city overlaid with a song and even a breakup in the rain, but there are much higher stakes in “10 Days Before the Wedding” than in most Western films in the genre. Despite the violent civil war in Yemen officially ending in Aden in 2015 after the internationally-backed government retook it from Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the couple at the heart of the film are still battling both the economic collapse of the city and violent militants, as well as familial pressure about who to wed. One wrong move could send their entire extended family into homelessness.
“When war ends, normal life doesn’t return back easily, and sometimes some small dreams become almost impossible to realize,” producer Mohsen Alkhalifi said before the screening.
The depth of the tragedies the couple faces reveals where the movie’s strength lies — in its humorous reaction to calamity. As things get worse and worse for the characters, the dramatic and often comedic smaller roles get to make fun of their dire straits. The movie hits high and low moments with sincerity as characters choose to love, live and thrive despite the effects of Yemen’s ongoing civil war.
The script itself is nearly outshone by the true tale of how the movie was made. Filmed in just 30 days in the streets of Aden, Yemen, the filmmakers were warned they could be attacked as rumors of terrorists and militants still swirled three years after the internationally-recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was elected in 2012, retook the city from Houthi rebels, making it Yemen’s temporary capital. However, director Amr Gamal said the city came together to help them film.
“We were afraid actually because it was the first big production since the war. We were afraid for three years; we didn’t do anything,” Gamal said. “We said, ‘Are you willing to come shoot the movie?’ And all of them said, ‘For three years, we are sitting in our homes without doing anything. It’s killing us.’ So even if something happens, it’s better to die while you are doing something good, something you love.
“And then was the surprise — because the whole city helped us. Everybody opened [their] houses. [In] all the houses were people saying, ‘Come on, film the movie inside this house.’ In the neighborhoods, everybody says ‘welcome.’ It was the nostalgia of Aden in the ’80s and ’70s and ’60s when the cinema was all over the city, so people wanted this to come back again. That’s why the whole city helped us and no one stopped us.”
The 48 local actors in the film were divided between two generations. The younger group applied through Facebook and if they had any experience at all, it was in plays. Many of the older actors who played family members in the movie had actually studied acting, oftentimes in Russia, when they were younger. However, they had not had the opportunity to use those skills in many years.
“The old actors were just very happy to do even small roles because in the last 30 years, no one allowed them to do any acting because of some problems inside the country,” Gamal said.
The final scene shows a crowd gathered to watch the couple’s nuptials amid the rubble of buildings destroyed in the war. Gamal said people in the area initially told them to film elsewhere, out of respect for the many dead souls nearby killed in the conflict. He convinced them to let him go forward by explaining the movie is about new life after tragedy.
The ultimate message of the movie came in that final dance at the wedding, with the song played over loud speakers urging those gathered to “chill out, laugh at your misery, and live.”
The film kicked off this year’s annual Arab Film Festival, which is meant to enhance understanding of the Arab world. The festival has grown in the past years, with the eighth annual film festival showcasing 10 screenings at two venues — the Museum of Photographic Arts and AMC Mission Valley 20. In a statement, Karama president Larry Christian, who leads the local nonprofit group sponsoring the event, said, “We try to show the breadth and diversity of the region while not shying away from the conflicts and tragedies that affected more and more people.”
The breadth of the characters is also what makes “10 Days Before the Wedding” so effective. As in life, the film is not all tragedy or all comedy; each character experiences a wide range of pain, happiness, excitement, and frustration — all against a backdrop of a city still gutted by years of airstrikes.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com