"A New Day In Old Sana'a" is representative of the difficulties facing potential film makers in the Middle East. While some west asian countries have a long established film industry, notably Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran, other countries have only a handful of films to their credit.
A New Day In Old Sana'a, released in 2005 is the first film shot in Yemen. On the first day of shooting religious fundamentalists stoned the set and the film crew needed to be guarded by soldiers during the rest of the shooting. Despite this state security effort there were reports of continual difficulties faced by the film makers from the Yemeni Authorities.
Yemeni women are said to have refused to be filmed and Lebanese and British actresses took the female roles. Even so, criticism of the film has included the observation that the females are so well covered by veils that it is difficult to discern the subtleties of emotion that enable audiences to engage with the characters. The plot is about the choices a young photographer faces as he is faced with the alternatives of rebelling against his family by choosing true love, or obeying tradition and accepting the marriage his family has arranged for him. The backdrop of the intensely beautiful city of Sana'a and the respectful depiction of the very real conflicts between tradition and new ideas won the movie widespread acclaim and a special screening at Cannes.
The Yemeni Ministry Of Culture has this year announced the creation of a Film Festival for Sana'a to activate the local film industry. This announcement has been greeted enthusiastically.
Elsewhere in the Middle East dificulties remain. Cinema is banned in Saudi Arabia and the 2006 film Keif al-Hal (How are you?) was actually shot in neighboring Dubai. It was said to be shown everywhere in the Middle East except its native country.
Keif al-Hal is a comedy/drama that deals with the conflict between moderates and religious extremism. In the film this is explored among the young in the way they come to terms with the desire to embrace globalization while still respecting age old traditions.
While filmed in more liberal Dubai the values of conservative Saudi Arabia remained uppermost in the film makers minds. Ayman Halawani, head of production described the fine line that needed to be treaded: "We were very careful not to show anything offensive to Saudi society to the point we were watching the eyes of the actresses to decide if that is an appropriate look."
Saudi actress Hind Mohammed was prepared for a backlash in male dominated Saudi society for her role in the film. "I want to prove that a woman can do something despite the education we receive that she is weak and dishonourable and must never speak up," she said.
The film's Associate Producer is Haifa al-Mansur who is well aware that her activities directing male actors, her dress code and exposed hair while she made the film could well have seen her arrested back in Saudi Arabia where women are required to be covered from head to toe and strict rules about the segregation of men and women are enforced.
Mansur is no stranger to controversy. She made a documentary called Women Without Shadows in which a cleric states that it is not mandatory for a woman to cover her face. The documentary caused a sensation in conservative Saudi Arabia.
Despite the many problems she has need to face, Mansur is optimistic about the future of the arts in her native country. "I do not want to insult," she said. "Although there are many things I dislike, I can express myself in a way that society will listen and debate."