Director Bader Ben Hirsi and producer Ahmed Abdali, who are showcasing their film at the Cannes Film Festival, said they feared the political fallout of participating in a festival in Israel, a country Yemen does not formally recognise.

"We don't want to undermine the integrity of the film by making a political statement," said Ben Hirsi, about his Romeo and Juliet-style piece set in the Yemeni capital.

"Regrettably, this appears to be the case, which we want to avoid at all costs."

Since their film was partially subsidised by the Yemen government, the filmmakers feared a potential backlash from the Yemeni press, which could view their participation as a nod to Israel's actions against the Palestinian people.

The Jerusalem Film Festival is government-backed.
 
Given the challenges it took to make the film in the first place, which included wooing Yemeni parliamentarians with a mid-production screening and tweaking the script for local religious groups, the extra burden of being associated with Israel was too great.

Arab attention

The trouble for the duo began when they advertised their film in one of the Cannes Festival's publications, listing its numerous achievements including "Official Selection: Jerusalem International Film Festival".

Ben Hirsi: No intention of making
political statement through film

The advertisement caught the attention of directors and festival organisers from the Middle East who warned them about the potential backlash.

Ben Hirsi and Abdali, who have spent most of their lives in Britain, considered the consequences.

"An Arab film does not have to be a political one," said Ben Hirsi, who specifically wrote the script to avoid controversy for the first feature film to be shot and produced entirely in Yemen.

"We wanted to put this on for film lovers in Jerusalem to enjoy, especially the Palestinians and Yemenites," he explained.

"But clearly this does not seem to be the most appropriate forum for that."

Ben Hirsi did not rule out screening the film in the West Bank instead, if he could find the right venue and cinema operator.

So far, the film has been shown in 12 countries and is set to premiere at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival in late May and the Institut du Monde Arab festival in Paris in July.

The filmmakers are in talks with distributors in preparation for release of the film in mainstream theatres.

Photos courtesy of Bader Ben Hirsi