In some parts of the world, 10-year-old girls are being married off. In other parts, during times of political instability, musical, cultural and historical elements are brought together as a way of storytelling. I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced and The Dream of Shahrazad are two films screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival that invite audiences to consider these social, political and cultural issues through the unique lens of their directors.
The young star of I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced is the niece of director Khadija al-Salami. According to al-Salami, her niece, 11, is aware of what her future holds: she will be married off in a couple of years. This is the situation for many young girls in countries like Yemen, al-Salami’s native country.
The film is based on the book I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, but it also reflects al-Salami’s own experience of being forced into marriage at age 11. Al-Salami, 45, says that child marriages in countries like Yemen are accepted as normal practice. She recounts being married to a man in his late 30s or early 40s.
“I didn’t care what he looked like, I only saw a monster,” she says. “What matters is you’re a child and you’re raped by a man.”
Even though she felt the situation was wrong, it was difficult for her to go against her family and society. By trying to change her fate, al-Salami says she was viewed as a “bad girl,” bringing shame to her family.
It took her mother attempting suicide to help al-Salami get a divorce (divorce is possible in Yemen, but it takes about three years, beginning with an extensive approval period). After returning the dowry and wedding money to her husband, al-Salami was officially divorced.
“I had a painful childhood and I knew at an early age that I wanted an education. I was devastated when I was told to marry; I was deprived of an education,” says al-Salami.
After the divorce, she was able to finish school at age 16 and was awarded a scholarship to the United States. Always strong in the Sciences, al-Salami had her sights on an engineering career but says she liked the magic of the small screen and making films.
After becoming a filmmaker, al-Salami did not think she would return to Yemen. Over time, she felt compelled to help young girls in her native country.
“We need to bring more awareness to the situation; not every girl has the courage or determination to say no,” says al-Salami, adding that there were no human rights groups when she was young.
“My hope is to have more educated men and women. Education was my saviour,” says al-Salami, who started My Future Foundation, a foundation that aims to help young people who want to go to school but do not have the resources.
Al-Salami would like her audience to know that the people of her culture are not violent. The problem is ignorance: by allowing child marriage, families are committing a crime even if they do not realize it.
“My point is to make [the audience] think. We shouldn’t be afraid. If something isn’t right, it isn’t right,” she says.
Music, art, politics and 1001 Arabian Nights
The Dream of Shahrazad is an award-winning documentary where characters make reference to the well-known stories of 1001 Arabian Nights amidst the events surrounding the Arab Spring – the political uprising that began in 2010.
“What people do in Egypt is storytelling, to be able to live together in very difficult times,” says director Francois Verster.
Verster’s original intention was to speak political ideas such as Islamophobia and Orientalism –
in line with the works of Edward Said.
In the process of making The Dream of Shahrazad, Verster became intrigued by how the interaction of music, art and cultural storytelling helps to make connections between life and art. For Verster, music is equivalent to the dialogue in a film and becomes a kind of third dimension.
“It’s a very creative process [with music]. Music should be there all along,” he says.
Verster’s own musical background, having played music his entire life, inspired him to use music to structure the film.
“It provides a much broader historical and cultural perspective and allows a retrospective look at the Arab Spring,” says Verster, adding that the film used Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem, Scheherazade.
While filming in three countries – Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon – Verster says he dealt with linguistic and political barriers.
“There’s this perception of us as these White Europeans taking over, but we were fortunate to meet helpful people [who] opened their homes and lives to us,” he says.
For Verster, one of the problems with making a documentary is that the audience thinks they are going to engage with the real world and therefore anticipates an objective truth.
“Reality doesn’t work like that. The aim is to give an insight, a new experience in the world,” he says.
According to Verster, one of the benefits of documentaries is that they allow the audience to ask a lot more questions, rather than find the answers. He says the Arab Spring is an extremely complicated and layered subject.
“You’re making a statement about reality with documentaries; not everyone is agreeing with what you say. People are going to really like it – or not,” he says.
Verster urges viewers to allow themselves to experience his film rather than look for specific answers or solutions.
“Just feel it,” he says.
Learn more about My Future Foundation at www.myfuture-yemen.org.