The taboo of abortion

"Al Murhaqoon" ("The Burdened") is the first Yemeni feature film ever to be shown at the Berlinale.
"Al Murhaqoon" ("The Burdened") is the first Yemeni feature film ever to be shown at the Berlinale.

"Al Murhaqoon" ("The Burdened") is the first Yemeni feature film ever to be shown at the Berlinale. Ahmed Shawky spoke to director Amr Gamal about the difficulties of making a film in Yemen and the taboo of abortion

By Ahmed Shawky

What provided the inspiration for "Al Murhaqoon"?

Amr Gamal: It all began in October 2019, when something similar happened to a close friend. I asked his permission to use it as the theme of my film. I came up with the treatment with my colleague Mazen Refaat. We then met with my friend and his wife on several occasions and wrote the film script together. Then the pandemic happened. We used the opportunity for edits and re-writes, so that we were finally able to start filming in August 2021.

We're talking about a film that was shot in Yemen, a country at war with no film industry. That must have been challenging.

Gamal: I very much believe in shooting a film in its original setting, because I also believe in the value of documentation. Documentation of place has always been a focus of my theatre and TV work, as it was for my first film "10 Days Before the Wedding".

Yemen, especially Aden, where I come from, has a long history of theatre. It used to have numerous old cinemas and theatres. Then the civil war broke out and the Houthi Islamists took control of the city and destroyed them all. Nevertheless, we resumed our activities in 2005 and founded a theatre group.

Yemeni film director Amr Gamal (source: Adenium Productions)
تساؤل إنساني وخزعبلات متوارثة: يقول عمرو جمال مخرج الفيلم اليمني "المرهقون" إن "المصدر هو الحكاية الحقيقية التي رأيتُ فيها كيف يمكن للواقع أن يضع الشخص أمام التساؤل الإنساني: هل أتمسك بقناعاتي الدينية وعاداتي وتقاليدي أم يؤثر على الضعف الإنساني لشخص قريب أو امرأة في ورطة؟ الحقيقة أن الجميع بدأوا يفتشون عن حل شرعي، بإيجاد فتوى ما تبرر لهم الإجهاض، حتى لو كانوا أنفسهم قد رفضوا التخلص من الطفل السابق. الفيلم يحاول أن يطرح السؤال: إذا كان ثمن الاحتفاظ بالجنين هو تعاسته وتعاسة أسرته، فما هو الحل إذن؟ الخزعبلات المتوارثة تطمئن الناس بأن "الطفل يولد ومعه رزقه"، لكن هذا مجرد كلام مرسل لا علاقة له بالواقع. أما موقفي فهو واضح في مشهد تسأل الزوجة زوجها فيه: ماذا سنقول لأولادنا إذا عرفوا في المستقبل (عن الإجهاض)؟ فيرد: سنقول لهم أننا فعلناها من أجلهم". ويضيف: "أنا شخص أقدس المكان، ولدي خوف مرضي من فقدان تراث مدينة عدن البصري، ووجدتها فرصة نادرة لتوثيق هذا التراث في فيلم سينمائي، لذلك كان كل مكان في الفيلم مخططًا من البداية للتصوير فيه".

This created an audience in the city that followed our work, which helped me and my group to gain a good reputation among the inhabitants and even among those in power.

So I received help and funding for my first film from theatre supporters in Aden.

When I produced "10 Days Before the Wedding", no one expected the film to succeed to the extent that it would be screened in Yemeni cinemas for eight months in 2018 and 2019. All this helped me film "Al Murhaqoon".

How did you put together your film crew?

Gamal: Filming for television had never stopped in Yemen. This meant there were always trained teams I could rely on. And then, of course, there were the members of my theatre group who joined me.

I also got support from abroad for key positions such as director of photography or film editor, in the hope they would help train Yemeni creatives for future films. The majority of the actors involved were either total rookies or had very limited on-screen experience.

What difficulties did you encounter filming in Yemen?

Gamal: There were many difficulties, starting with the volatile security situation. We worried constantly that some event would happen that would force us to stop filming. Once fighting broke out and we had to stop filming for a whole week.

Then there were the hours of power outages every day, meaning you always had to use generators and keep them supplied with fuel. Then, of course, there were the numerous warring factions; we were forced to maintain good relations with all sides in order to be able to finish the film.

Some localities, for example, were under the control of one group, while adjacent areas were under the control of another. Without good relations with both, it would have been impossible to complete the shoot.

Maintaining good relations with all sides

Did these factions ask to view the content of the film before allowing you to begin shooting?

Gamal: Up until now, I have been able to build on the trust established with them over the years. As a result, no one ever asked me about the film's content. It helped that my earlier works were mainly about social issues, even if they also dealt with controversial topics. But there is no guarantee this will continue with the explicit theme of "Al Murhaqoon". When it comes to future ventures, they may well wish to see the content before shooting.

The film displays compassion for all the characters, even those who are against the two protagonists' desire to have an abortion. Was that in the script?

Gamal: Of course. The film is based on a true story, in which I saw the human questions and doubts that real life throws at us: do I hold on to my religious beliefs and customs, or does the human weakness of someone close to me, or a woman caught in a dilemma affect me?

The truth is that they all started looking for a solution in Islamic law, for a fatwa that would legitimise abortion for them, even if they themselves had refrained from aborting a previous child.


"We did it for them"

The film begs the question: if the price of maintaining the pregnancy is that the child and its family will live in misery, what is the solution? The popular Arabic saying "with the child is born its daily bread" is meant to reassure people. But that is just an old wives' tale that has nothing to do with reality.

My position, on the other hand, is expressed in the scene where the wife asks her husband: How will we tell our children about this later? He answers: We will tell them we did it for them.

Most of the scenes in the film were shot in one long take. Why did you make this decision? And why did you deviate from that for some scenes?

Gamal: To me, the locations I selected in Aden are sacred. I have a pathological fear of the city losing its visual heritage. For me, it was a rare opportunity to document this heritage in a feature film. Therefore, every location was scheduled for filming from the beginning. For example, the library that the protagonists visit is the oldest library on the Arabian Peninsula.

We planned to shoot there and highlight the family trees of its three founders. We even put up a plaque bearing their names, which previously had not been there. We wanted to record the existence of the library, knowing it is threatened with closure.


Close to 95% of the locations are in danger of disappearing. I therefore adopted the one-shot technique to capture a realistic image of the place, the people, how they move through the city and even within the houses. Cinema is the memory of the nation and we are a country without memory.

Hence, I have done my bit with this film. Perhaps the decision was also related to my love of theatre and the form of a theatre scene. Of course, I used cuts where necessary – the overall film is more important than slavish adherence to the single shot.

How did "Al Murhaqoon" end up at the Berlinale?

Gamal: During production, word about the project spread overseas. We secured funding from Karlovy Vary (the Czech Republic's leading film festival), the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia and Malmo. The festivals wanted a chance to view the film, with the intention of potentially screening it. That is actually what happened with the Berlinale, where we were invited to participate in the Panorama section.

What's your impression of the Berlinale so far?

Gamal: It is extremely fascinating. It's an opportunity to watch films you don't get to see every day, in the midst of a large audience that adores cinema. It makes you feel that collective cinema-going is not about to die out. It reassures me. I tend to worry that everyone will switch to simply watching films via streaming platforms. But the Berlinale is proof that cinema can't be defeated that easily.

Interview conducted by Ahmed Shawky

© Goethe-Institut/RUYA 2023

Translated from the Arabic by George Samaan

Ahmed Shawky is a film critic, film festival programmer and has held many posts in the Egyptian film industry. He has sat on several film festival juries and writes regularly about cinema and the entertainment industry.