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Film Review: ‘The Mulberry House’

Sara Ishaq's deeply personal memoir offers a rare glimpse into a Yemini household's response to recent upheaval.

With:

Narrator: Sara Ishaq. (Arabic, English dialogue)

A rare glimpse into a Yemeni household’s response to recent upheaval as well as a quasi-diary recording the director’s return to her roots, “The Mulberry House” is Sara Ishaq’s deeply personal memoir of family and revolution. The daughter of a Yemeni father and Scottish mother, Ishaq left Yemen when she was 17, returning for a visit just before the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Her docu, skilfully framed despite poor video quality, reps a valuable entry in the growing number of regional reactions to the unrest, and should garner interest on docu and news channels.

After her parents’ divorce, Ishaq continued to live in Yemen, but then moved to Scotland, promising her father she’d maintain her Yemeni roots. At the time of her visit to Sana’a in 2011, she felt she hadn’t honored that promise, but as she adjusts to being back on the Arabian peninsula temporarily, she finds ways to chart a middle ground, enabling her to navigate within both cultures. Of course there are gentle clashes: Her father conveniently forgets he tried to marry her off at 15, arguing that early marriages allow husbands to shape their wives’ personalities. There are also comments about her ripped jeans and the length of her abaya, but Ishaq’s family is still a forward-thinking group, open to the larger world; after all, her dad married a foreigner.

When spillover from Tunisia and Egypt ignites dissatisfaction with the dictatorial regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the household is quick to support the protestors. Though her father is nervous that Ishaq insists on bringing her camera to demonstrations and funerals, his anxiety gives way to pride, and thanks to her blogging, she soon becomes an expert witness for the BBC and other international news outlets.

Though she includes power cuts, street shooting and the sound of fighter jets overhead, Ishaq isn’t simply making a film about Yemen’s unrest but rather one family’s response to a nation in rebellion. It’s far more about negotiating her place between two worlds and her engagement with her family than a document of the protest movement, and as such reinforces the feminist refrain “The personal is political.” Yet “The Mulberry House” does so with a gentle touch, conveying a sense of familial warmth without piling on the emotion. While the visuals are rough, it’s clear Ishaq has an eye for interesting compositions. Music, however, feels tacked on and generally unnecessary.

Film Review: 'The Mulberry House'

Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Arab Documentary, competing), Dec. 9, 2013. (Also in Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 65 MIN. Original title: “Bayt al toot”

Production:

(Documentary — Yemen-Syria-Egypt-U.K.-United Arab Emirates) A Proaction Films, Seen Films, Setara Films, Enjaaz production. (International sales: Proaction Films, Cairo.) Produced by Diana El Jeiroudi. Co-producers, Mostafa Youssef, Sara Ishaq.

Crew:

Directed, written by Sara Ishaq. Camera (color, DV), Genevieve Bicknell, Ishaq; editors, Doaa Fadel, Ishaq; music, Ahmed Al-Shaiba; sound, Bjorn Video.

With:

Narrator: Sara Ishaq. (Arabic, English dialogue)

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