During outbreaks of violence at antigovernment protests, the truth is often clouded by accusations and blame. Responsibility for who fired the first bullet is deferred to the other. After the massacre of some 53 protesters at Change Square, the demonstration site in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on March 18, 2011, the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh denied any role in the affair. Protesters had been on the streets of Sana’a since January demanding that Saleh step down, following the example of the Tunisian revolution. Beginning with only about 30 young activists, the movement grew by the day, and on the morning of the March massacre some ten thousand came out to the streets to demand regime change.
Saleh, who had been president for over three decades, was wedged firmly in power at the time of the massacre. His loyal family members maintained control of the most lethal branches of the military, while Saleh consolidated power over the years through an elaborate patronage network such that dozens of powerful sheikhs and businessmen remained by his side despite growing national dissent. The Saleh government’s denial of any role in ordering the violence persisted for months after the massacre, government officials fervently maintaining that opposition leaders were responsible, or that residents of a nearby neighborhood had opened fire.
Thus, the Oscar-nominated documentary Karama Has No Walls, from Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq, is not only a compelling story about the resolve and hope of Yemen’s protesters in those early months of 2011, but also comprises a powerful and condemning body of evidence against the Saleh regime. The film is a collection of video footage taken alarmingly close to the worst of the bloodshed on the day of the massacre at Change Square, nicknamed by the protesters the “Friday of Dignity,” or “Juma’a al-Karama.” This footage reveals that soldiers from the Central Security Forces, a paramilitary wing of the government commanded by Saleh’s nephew, Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, were standing among plainclothes thugs when they opened fire at the protesters with automatic rifles from street level. The film offers a rare glimpse into what really happened that day at Change Square, the event that triggered the breakdown of Saleh’s government in the days that followed.
I had been covering Yemen from my home in the old city of Sana’a for a year before the antigovernment protests began in early 2011, and had just started reporting for the New York Times a few weeks prior to the “Friday of Dignity.” I stood a few blocks removed from the worst of the shooting during the massacre, and was struck then by how few protesters were running away from the gunfire even as it continued to ring out, one bullet after another, for a full hour. They stood their ground, and I sensed their camaraderie in facing death together, a sentiment Karama Has No Walls captures powerfully. In fact, I saw one man heading toward the worst of the violence holding a megaphone to his mouth and chanting to his fellow protesters: “Don’t be afraid of the bullets! Don’t be afraid of the bullets!” In the aftermath, there was a stirring local rumor circulating that Karama Has No Walls also now confirms as fact: that as some protesters ran toward the barrage of bullets, they pulled their shirts up over their heads and exposed their bare torsos to the snipers.
Violence had been used against protesters at Change Square prior to the massacre, but it had been predictable and localized. The protesters expected government sponsored attacks, but did not predict what was about to befall them just as prayers were ending that Friday afternoon when snipers began shooting into the crowd from the fourth and fifth floors of nearby buildings. The documentary captures that exact moment - the surprise and panic when the first bullets fell - and continues as the attack erupts into a bloody slaughter. Protesters pass from life to death on camera. A young man stares down at his chest at a bullet-sized hole, grasping at it futilely and screaming out in pain and horror. The viewer can only assume he will die shortly. It is a vivid portrayal of violence that has largely been sanitized in Western media. To see the actual process of death - not just a snapshot of a dead man killed in battle, but the act of a human being killed violently - makes an impression that is difficult to ignore, one integral in understanding the protesters’ true experience and subsequent decision making. If this reality was televised on our evening news - brutal violence perpetrated by governments that the West has spent millions of dollars supporting - would there be public outcry as a result or a demand for alternative policies? It is a question with implications more broadly in interpreting the Arab Spring.
Shooting to kill is an abomination in the traditional tribal code that rules Yemen, in which violence serves more as a display of machismo than an effort to end as many lives as possible. The war that would break out in Sana’a in the months that followed the “Friday of Dignity” was a clear example of this. The government would shell empty buildings just to instill fear and assert its claim on control. But the government overstepped irrevocably during the killings of March 18th, when snipers aimed at protesters’ heads, an escalation all the more astonishing and appalling in Yemeni culture.
Yet it’s not only the original footage from the scene of the massacre that makes Karama Has No Walls so powerful. Ishaq’s characters draw viewers into the story of Yemen’s uprising. Through its 25 minutes, the film weaves together the stories of activists and their family members highlighting the pain, loss and, ultimately, hope felt by ordinary citizens during a time of violent political upheaval. It humanizes a people whose stories are so often overshadowed by headlines about Al Qaeda and drone strikes, offering a more intimate portrait of those living in the poorest country in the Arab world.
Ishaq, who grew up in Sana’a and moved to Edinburgh in 2001, had returned to Yemen in 2011 to make a short documentary about her Yemeni family. Her arrival coincided with the onset of the Yemen uprising, and she went to the streets with her camera. The film opens with scenes from Change Square before the massacre: boys play volleyball and chess; a man twirls a pink cloud of cotton candy to sell to a child; tribesmen from the countryside perform folk dances while onlookers watch and clap. As the violence unfolds on screen, the film’s two cameramen narrate their experiences at the massacre. When a man is shot fatally beside one cameraman, Khaled, he tells us how “When his blood fell on my clothes, it felt like he’d left me a message: Remain steadfast.” We learn about young Saleem, who was sent by his mother to buy eggs in the vicinity of Change Square and was struck by a sniper that Friday morning. He loses his vision as a result, and in an interview, Saleem’s father, sitting in a dark and sparsely furnished room in his home, says he would give his own skin so that his young son might once again see. We see what young Saleem looks like now, without his eyes, playing with younger siblings who are confused about their brother’s new disability. Another father speaks to the camera with a sincere longing to find purpose in the death of his son, Anwar, a young protester fatally shot that day. Anwar had gone to Change Square despite his father’s imploring that he focus on his studies instead. “Dad, if you convinced me to stay at home and every other father convinced their son not to go, then who would carry out the revolution?” Anwar had said before taking his leave.
The Oscar nomination for Karama Has No Walls, the first ever for a Yemeni film, comes at a time when the joy and promise of the Arab Spring has faded in the media - with the ongoing war in Syria, the severe military crackdown in Egypt and violent fundamentalist attacks in Libya. As for Yemen, the protestors’ dream of overthrowing Saleh was reduced by heavy-handed western intervention helping to power a weak new president who was part of the old regime and violent political factions trying to take advantage of the power vacuum opened during the 2011 conflict. Meanwhile, Saleh remains in Yemen with immunity, influencing politics from behind the scenes. The country is stricken by conflict that prevents political reconciliation, economic progress or restoration of basic government services to the population. Yet this film reminds its viewers of the initial beauty of those early months of the Arab uprisings, and of the protesters’ early commitment to peaceful resistance. It is the story of a Yemen that has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and terrorism. While it tells this story through the prism of political upheaval and violence, it is because of that violence that we learn a great deal about these brave and kind protestors who, despite the brutality used against them, remain steadfast in their resolve for a better future.
Laura Kasinof is a freelance journalist and from 2011-2012 reported for the New York Times from Yemen. She is currently writing a book about her experience in the country, Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets, to be published in Fall 2014 by Arcade.