The 2018 film 10 Days Before the Wedding marked the first Yemeni-made film in decades that premiered and was commercially released in Yemen. The film is an homage to the coastal city of Aden, where audiences flocked in unprecedented numbers to wedding halls that had been converted into makeshift cinemas specifically for 10 Days’ release. It is a debut feature by Aden-based director Amr Gamal, whose previous experience has included theatre and TV productions in his hometown. Below is an interview which Samhita Sunya, assistant professor of cinema at University of Virginia, conducted with Gamal during his US tour of the film this spring, along with producer Mohsen Alkhalifi. In addition to several university screenings (University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Yale University) and a few commercial events, the film was screened at the San Diego Arab Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, the United Nations in New York, and the US Department of State in its most recent tour.
10 Days is an engaging romantic comedy that takes place in Aden. The main characters, Rasha and Ma’moon, are a young couple who, we learn, had called off their wedding some years prior because of the 2015 war in Aden. This time around, just ten days remain until their wedding, but, so, too, do many obstacles, both material and psychological: challenges of infrastructure, employment, housing, and financial resources, on the one hand; and ensuing frustration, despair, guilt, and exhaustion, on the other. The film captures not only a set of memorable characters, but also a heartfelt ode to Aden in several wide vistas, scenes that wander through its markets and lanes, and a particularly striking crane shot that gracefully sweeps up the characters, audience, and seaside city in its arc.
Samhita Sunya (SS): What led you to the decision to make a film?
Amr Gamal (AG): First of all, it was my dream. I love cinema, and since I was a teenager, I wanted to be a movie director. In my mind, cinema was the hardest thing to achieve. You needed a perfect budget, perfect knowledge, perfect timing. It was like something holy.
Theatre taught me many things, though theatre was easier—cinema was still this giant dream. Plays were a simpler choice—though eventually, some of those with whom I worked in theatre acted in the movie, and others, as crew behind the scenes! We established the theatre troupe Khaleej Aden in 2005, and we performed plays until the war in March 2015. After 2015, we were performing in an old open-air cinema. However, we were afraid, because of the bad situation and lack of security that such a venue might be vulnerable to attack.
In the meantime, by 2010, TV channels in Aden had also opened the door for us, and after the war, we had this option. We did one TV show in 2016, filmed in a completely closed place. After 2016, however, the TV channels stopped producing series because of the drop-off in sponsors after the war. Not realizing the full extent of this, we had been working tirelessly for eight months on a TV script through the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018.
Then, at the very end, we were told: Oh sorry, we do not have sponsors. It was a big shock, but it prompted me to eventually take my fate into my own hands. When my team and I were very depressed, having worked so hard on the TV script, Mohsen [Alkhalifi] asked, why don’t you take this chance to realize your dream, of making a film? I was like, you are asking me to do this NOW, in the WORST situation, when I was not doing this in better days? Yet, his words stayed in my head, and I told myself, if we do this, we would make history. It will be exceptional and huge, at least in our country’s history. We had the experience of the theatre, and also the experience of TV production—doing budgets, shooting, lighting, audio; solving technical problems as they came up; and working with cinematographers and crew. As I contemplated making a film, I thought, did I want to do a movie aimed at festivals? Or for the public? My team and I settled firmly on the latter.
SS: You speak so passionately about cinema. What did you grow up watching?
AG: My family loved movies, and I loved watching Disney films as child. I watched each and every one at home! I watched old black and white Arabic musicals, constantly singing the songs and enacting scenes. In Aden, we also have a strong sense of a connection to India—we think of ourselves as part of India in a way, dating back to the presence of administrators of British India in the nineteenth century! I was fascinated by Bollywood movies. The same open-air theatre—that I mentioned as a venue for our plays after the war—unofficially showed Bollywood movies, which I would watch frequently as a high schooler. Even if we did not have “real” cinema, I was going every Thursday to watch Bollywood movies in pretty poor-quality versions. However, I always wanted to watch there—I loved it so much for the experience, as an experience that would always give me goosebumps! If I knew they were putting on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham or Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge—again! I would go watch! Kajol has always been my crush—I loved her as a teenager, and I love her now! Also, of course, AR Rahman’s music has also been a huge inspiration for me.
SS: You have mentioned that this is the first Yemeni-made film to be released commercially in Yemen, for at least forty years. What were its precedents, as far as other Yemeni films?
AG: To my knowledge, precedents include A New Day in Old Sana’a (2005) and I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced (2016), both of which were directed towards—and premiered at—festivals outside of Yemen. Maybe there were a few others in earlier decades, like in the 1960s? What is important is that even if there were such earlier films, these memories have faded as cinema production and even exhibition in our country also faded.
SS: Tell me a little bit about the production process, in terms of casting, rehearsing, shooting, etc.—you mentioned working on TV productions. How was this different?
AG: Actually, it was not that different. There is not much infrastructure and support offered from TV channels, in the sense that you would be given a budget, and you would have to figure it out. This experience taught me how to go about this process. The main season for TV series is Ramadan, and you have to complete thirty episodes in sixty days, maximum. On this timeline, we were used to doing fifteen to twenty scenes, even thirty scenes, a day! So, shooting three to five scenes a day for a film was actually much, much easier. This tremendously improved the quality of the acting, since we were able to do more takes.
From the very outset of the decision to make a film, we had to search for exhibition venues—basically, two wedding halls in Aden that we prepared by building 6x4-meter screens out of wood pieces, covered with white paint. So even before the shooting, by day, [cowriter] Mazen and I worked on the script, and by night, [producer] Mohsen and I looked into possibilities for actually screening the film, to see if we could prepare wedding halls for its eventual exhibition by testing projectors on makeshift wooden screens, etc.
SS: It seems like the film’s storyline, about the many obstacles that stand in the way of a wedding, parallels the film’s own journey, not just in terms of obstacles, but also in terms of the importance of wedding halls in the exhibition of the film!
AG: Yes! It is like we had the same story producing the movie! Maybe what happened to Rasha and Ma’moon happened to me and Mohsen and all the people involved in making the film?! Just like Rasha and Ma’moon believe in their love and hope that everything will work out fine, the reality of the situation is that so much stands in the way of their happily ever after. We also believed in our film, but it was not easy, and we were not even sure whether people would come, especially because there were no real cinemas that were operating. We had to wait to find out, and there was a big question mark—just like you have to wait to find out if the wedding will happen at the end of the film!
SS: When was the premiere? How did it go, and what have you found in the subsequent response to the film, both in Yemen and outside, among commercial, festival-going, and university audiences?
AG: The first screening was in Aden on 21 August 2018, on Eid al Adha. I was nervous, and we did not expect a big response, especially since we had set up eight shows a day—four each, in two venues: 10 a.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m.
My friends told me that the early show would definitely be canceled within a day or two, since no one was likely to go to early morning shows, and that the last show, too, would be canceled because of people’s fear over attending cultural events that late in the evening. Since the war, people had been holding weddings in the afternoons out of fear of holding gatherings and having to move about the city to return home later in the night. This started to shift at the end of 2017, as people started to once again hold weddings after 8 p.m., like it was before the war.
The first-day turnout for the film was okay, but it was not huge, especially during the first and last shows. By the second day, social media had exploded with such enthusiasm, with such positive reviews. By the third day, more and more people started coming, and by the fourth day, all shows were packed! We actually had to open another slot, so we were running nine shows a day! In this way, social media played such an important role in promoting the movie.
SS: I heard that your film won an award for Best Makeup at the Jaipur Film Festival?
AG: Yes! This is a great story. I told my team, do not wear makeup. We are not going to bring in a makeup artist, since this film is about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. I even asked the actresses to leave their eyebrows alone for two months, to ensure as natural a look as possible. I asked them to put on makeup only when motivated by the plot—like for the scenes in which Rasha and her friend go out. Apparently, the jury at the Jaipur Film Festival was so impressed, presuming that we had hired a very, very talented makeup artist to achieve such a convincingly natural look!
SS: You also won the Special Jury Prize at the Aswan International Women’s Film Festival! Having seen the film, I did notice that film calls into question ideals of masculinity that are tied to wealth and aggression, and likewise, ideals of femininity that are tied to remaining demure and soft-spoken.
AG: Yes, in many commercial films, the male hero is little more than a cliché that glorifies machismo. However, in reality, women are strong at times, and men are weak at times. Steering away from clichés, we wanted to depict a more wholesome image of desirable masculinity, through men who can be determined and persevere at times, but who can also cry, are vulnerable, and can express their emotions. Similarly, our film shows women characters who are strong and funny in some moments, and fragile in others. In this way, whether in relationships or friendships, we see how these characters can complement one another through their ups and downs.
SS: While the film is in a sense a romantic comedy that revolves around the characters of Rasha and Ma’moon, the film seems to reveal another key love story between you—the filmmaker—and the city of Aden! If this is true, can you say more about this?
AG: I love Aden. More than anything in the world. I feel responsible for documenting this city, since there is no feature film that has done so. I felt that someone should take the responsibility of documenting the sea, the markets, the streets, the food, the people, the rituals. Because I love this city, I wanted to capture this and show it to people, show it to the world. It’s an exhausted city that has been through so much, and a beautiful city. In the despair that follows a war, we can lose not just loved ones and buildings and heritage, but also memories and ways of life. With this sense of the fleeting nature of beautiful moments, buildings, and spaces in Aden, I felt a kind of urgency to capture my city in the film.
Historically, cinema and theatre constituted a very important part of daily life in Aden between the 1950s and 1980s. People used to go to events, to the cinema and theatre. In the late 1980s onwards, this changed because of a civil war and subsequent control of the city by Islamist parties. People stopped going to the cinema. When our film was released last year, it was cataclysmic—again, thanks to social media! I noticed that some older people, even those who were poor, had dyed their hair and worn very old-fashioned clothes and white shoes, which seemed like clothing from the 1970s, or maybe even earlier? It seemed to me, they had been storing these items for years and years, until they finally had an occasion to wear them again for an outing!
SS: Are there other “city” films that have inspired you? Or more generally, other filmmakers or genres that you hold dear? You’ve of course mentioned the Indian film actress Kajol and music director AR Rahman!
AG: I love Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria trilogy, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Fellini’s Roma—these are all love stories! Cinema Paradiso, too, is a film in which the place is the hero, not the people. Like Mumbai in Wake Up Sid, and also Los Angeles in La La Land.
SS: I am curious to hear you reflect on the experience of being on the US tour. Is there anything distinct about the audiences you have encountered in the United States?
AG: I can easily understand when people—from anywhere—are moved by the sad and dramatic parts of the film, but to see them react to the comedic moments in the film—this surprised me! The hardest thing is to come from a faraway place with a film that is rife with subtle and satirical jabs at very local situations, because you think that only people from the same region will understand and laugh. What has surprised me is that young people in the United States were laughing so frequently, just as if they were extensions of audiences in Aden! This is encouraging, to see that we could reach the hearts and minds of audiences outside of Aden not only through the tragic and dramatic moments, but even through the film’s very local humor!
For details and updates, follow @_AmrGamal on Twitter.