Shatha Al-Harazi takes a look at a British film production and questions its ability to portray her native Yemen.
Last month the US Embassy in Sana’a along with the British Embassy and the British Council screened the British film “Salmon fishing in Yemen”. Made in 2011, this romantic comedy-drama is directed by Lasse Hallström and stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas and Amr Waked.
The film is based on the novel with the same name by Paul Torday, which won the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing and was serialized on BBC Radio 4 in the UK. It also received the Waverton Good Read Award in 2008.
Screening movies in a country with no cinema culture is a rare event, and many Yemenis felt it was a unique and important opportunity to attend. Others went to watch or buy the cheap DVD copy of the film, not because of their interest in salmon fishing or British cinema, but mainly because the film has the word “Yemen” in the title.
According to a press release, the director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Adrian Chadwick, said that Yemen-UK cultural ties go back centuries and this important book and film continue the tradition of cultural exchange between the two countries. He added that in recent years, literature and film have been two of the most fruitful ways that the British Council has explored and tried to understand both Yemen and the UK’s cultures.
The story of the film is just as the film title describes it, Salmon fishing in Yemen, an unrealistic venture as this sport is not known to Yemenis and as the country’s waters lack the necessary natural conditions for Salmon to live in.
In any case, a wealthy Yemeni Sheikh has a vision of bringing the sport to the Yemeni desert at the same time that the British Prime Minister’s overzealous press secretary decides to support any “good will” story that stops the media from talking about the British casualties in the Middle East.
Although the Sheikh puts millions into the project the film shows how the people don’t appreciate his idea. It portraits Yemenis as savages who look at westerners as enemies; at the end they destroy the dam that the Sheikh built and try to kill him.
However, there is a sub-story in the film, which is the romance that grows between the two Brits who works on the project. The British Council noted that “the film is not really about Yemen at all,” describing it as “a love story combined with a commentary on politicians and the things that they do.”
They added that the film “has raised awareness of Yemen in the US, the UK and Europe in a largely positive way, reminding audiences that this country has great potential – though perhaps not in salmon fishing.”
But the Yemeni audience did not seem to share this view, claiming that it depicted Yemenis as violent people in some scenes, which strengthen the negative stereotype against the country.
“The comedy in the movie, generally, was targeting the western…audience so it might seem tasteless to some of the easterners especially those who are not familiar with such kind of humor,” said Abdalnasser Abdul, a Yemeni who watched the film. “I think Yemen has only the name out of that movie, it doesn’t by any mean talk about or represent the way Yemenis live.“
He added that one should acknowledge that it is a comedy movie and there could be scenes that could be “offending to some of us” but are not actually intended to be so. And in general he found the film “A little bit comforting too – overall it does not present Yemenis as terrorists, but more as normal people living their own way of life.”
Rabee Mohammed, another Yemeni who watched the film, said that “they failed in presenting Yemen completely, the film doesn’t reflect the Yemeni mentality nor the lifestyle or even their appearance.” He added that the film showed Yemenis as “idiots who deny the power or science if it comes from the west.”
He strongly thinks that the film will push away foreign investors from investing in Yemen as it shows Yemenis acting against development and investment projects.
“The film only leaves a negative impression about Yemen,” he said. “It stereotypes Yemenis as terrorist which is the stereotype Yemenis and Arabs suffered from in the foreign media, especially in Hollywood. But this time it is in the British media, which is a little bit different.”
But it wasn’t all negative; some viewers found the film to be one of the best they have seen when it comes to portraying Yemeni customs.
“It could be the foreign film that has come closest in featuring Yemeni customs, although it wasn’t all Yemeni style,” said Hanan Al-Areqi, a Yemeni student who watched the film.
Abdul disagreed with this idea: ”I didn’t like how the costumes that were supposed to represent the Yemeni people were generally not the actual Yemeni ones, but rather more of a Gulf kind of costume.”
Even the Arabic dialect that was spoken wasn’t Yemeni – one can easily tell it is Egyptian and the custom was rather Saudi and Omani than Yemeni. It seems that those who made the movie did not put much effort into correctly portraying Yemen to the audience, which in this case know little about Yemen and in some instances are convinced that Yemen is a country of terror. The question then is why the need to use the word Yemen in the film when there is no reason to?
Shatha has also written How Yemen deals with the film and anti-US protests.