Karama Has No Walls

Come Oscar season, all cinephiles are ready to campaign for their favorite film. Are you Team Gravity or Team 12 Years a Slave? Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o? While movie fans have likely seen all the big nominees by this point, there are smaller categories where even some film enthusiasts may not be as well-versed. Leading up to the Oscars, EW will tell you all about one often-overlooked category: Best Documentary Short. Come back each day this week for a look at one of the nominees, and impress your Oscar party with your knowledge when the category appears on Sunday’s broadcast.

Today: Karama Has No Walls, by Sara Ishaq

A quick current events lesson: In early 2011, in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, members of a heavily armed population set aside their weapons and peacefully assembled to demand the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year autocratic rule. On Friday, March 18, 2011 (later dubbed ‘Friday of Dignity’ or ‘Juma’at El – Karama’), the peaceful protest took a deadly turn when pro -government snipers surrounded rooftops around Change Square in Sana’a and opened fire on the protestors during Friday prayers.

Sara Ishaq had been living in Yemen for a while and was following the protests when the attack, considered one of the bloodiest days in Yemen’s contemporary history, occurred. The resulting film — comprising both Ishaq-led interviews with family members of those who were killed that day, as well as real on-the-ground camera footage from the young men who were there — tells a powerful story about brutal regimes, rebellion, and causes worth the fight.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you originally hear about this?

Sara Ishaq: I was already there. It happened at the beginning of 2011 and I was already in Yemen at that point. I had been away for a few years and I went back to visit my family. When I got there a few days later the protest had started. Well, the protest had started weeks before but it didn’t really pick up until [then]. So I was there in mid-February. So then they started to gain momentum and more people started heading to the streets and so I decided to go as well and sort of document what was happening and make short videos – with no real foresight; I wasn’t planning on doing anything for television. It was just for my own, I thought I might as well start filming because I had a camera on me so I can start documenting. So that’s how I got into it in the first place.

How long had you been living there previously?

Ages 2-18. I was there for 16 years, finished high school, and then traveled back to Britain to do my undergrad and post graduate degree.

Once the uprising took place, was there any concern from the families over giving you the footage? [Much of the film is comprised of footage the young men were shooting themselves as the violence began taking place.]

No. Basically I got in touch with the cameramen directly. They hadn’t done anything with the footage and obviously they had risked their lives, putting themselves on the front lines, and their friends getting killed, so for them, they wanted something to be done with the footage. They were interested in being part of the project, they wanted nothing in return. They said, ‘Go and do what you want with the footage, as long as it comes to some good use.’ The families that I meant, they were also willing to speak about it because they were very distraught by what happened to their families and their losses. Everyone seemed happy to help and to give information about their stories and provide us with footage. So there was no problem at all with families. They’ve been really [great] whenever we do a press conference or screening about the film, they are always the first people to attend, they’ve been really nice. It’s more than just the film; it’s a big campaign for the case to bring awareness, to bring attention to the government’s case, to try and keep it alive so that those that were involved, the culprits are tried and there is a full investigation into what happened.

What’s the status of that investigation right now?

The investigation, it starts and it stops, it starts and it stops. There’s something always impeding the process and the progress of it. Mainly there are people that are really invested with getting somewhere with the investigation, and one human rights lawyer in particular, who happens to be my dad’s second cousin, he was one of the main lawyers investigating and he had some incriminating documents and he was assassinated. Someone broke into his house in the middle of the night and shot him in his bed. And other activists – human rights activists who’ve tried to advocate for the survivors and the families have been hurt. One was kidnapped, beaten up and then thrown in the streets and told not to dabble with this issue. Other lawyers have also been targeted. It’s a very sensitive subject.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re up against?

There are people trying to hide any trace of their involvement. So that’s the status now: An investigation has started but it’s not going anywhere, basically. I guess people are scared of being targeted. But even people who are pushing forward with it, a human rights watch report was done on it last year. They did some investigation into it as well, but of the 72 suspects but only a few of them have been taken in for questioning. The main people who were suspects, who hold higher positions in government or the military, haven’t been called in for any questioning. So it’s a very touchy subject. We’re hoping the attention the Oscar nomination is bringing to the film is going to make people in the government realize that they can’t keep turning a blind eye to it, because now there’s external pressure as well. People in Yemen are remembering it. It’s keeping it alive.

Are you planning any kind of follow-up film?

I don’t think I can. Maybe 10 years down the line. But right now it’s such a difficult subject to be focusing on. I’ve been working on this the past 2 years, with very little means of support. I’m not in a position legally. I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m not a lawyer. What I can do is pretty limited, but I hope that this [film] will inspire others to help with the investigation. And maybe some time down the line when I have a little bit more support or a little bit more influence maybe I can follow up on this with another film but I don’t want to say ‘Yes. I’ll definitely do this again’ because it was a very traumatic experience just doing this for the past couple of years during the filming and editing and talking about it a lot, with all the screenings and interviews. It keeps it alive: The massacre happened and people died and a lot of people forgot about it on the day, but we’ve really lived this day over and over again over the past few years, so hopefully it will amount to something, but I’m not sure how much more involvement I can promise for the future in terms of making another film.

What do you hope the Oscar recognition brings to the film?

What it’s done already. These widespread screenings everyone and getting the attention of people all over Yemen. There’s already been lots of screenings held in Yemen so far. Cinema in Yemen isn’t allowed; public cinema-going isn’t allowed, no functioning cinemas in the country. But lots of people have held screenings in their houses or embassies or cultural centers. I’m flying to Yemen in a few hours and tomorrow morning there is going to be a screening held by the Prime Minister. And the Ministry of Culture. And the Ministry of Human Rights. They are all going to be attending. And this is something I never would have been able to do had the film not received international recognition. I think they feel, even though for them maybe it’s easing their conscience in a way, they’re doing something for the victims by showing the film and talking about it.

Karama Has No Walls is now in theaters along with all the other Oscar Documentary Shorts. It is also available to download on iTunes.