The Burdened: A striking abortion drama set in Yemen
Watching a feature film produced in Yemen is certainly a rarity these days. Amr Gamal’s sophomore film, titled The Burdened, is one of the few.
A Yemeni-Sudanese-Saudi co-production world-premiered in the Panorama strand of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (16-23 February), the drama is set to take part in a few more gatherings around the world, including the likes of Valencia’s Cinema Jove (22 June-1 July), Taipei (22 June-8 July) and Durban (20-30 July).
Before embarking on the making of The Burdened, Gamal helmed 10 Days Before the Wedding, the Yemeni entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards.
In it, a number of obstacles stand in the way of a young couple as only ten days are left before their wedding, and each obstacle is in one way or another caused by the aftermath of the war.
"Based on true events which took place around 2019 and enriched by the presence of understated acting performances, The Burdened offers the international audience a good snapshot of what is like living in Aden today, and how religious conservatism can make people’s lives unbearable"
10 Days Before the Wedding was also the first picture to release commercially in Yemen after a three-decade absence of cinema in the country.
The story of The Burdened revolves around Isra’a (played by Abeer Mohammed) and her husband Ahmed (Khaled Hamdan). They both live in the old port city of Aden, in the southern part of the country.
Since 2014, their existence are shaped by the consequences of the ongoing civil war. With sincerity and great realism, Gamal reminds us about the conflict by showing military checks in the street and frequent power cuts affecting public buildings and private households, among other details.
The family’s precarious economic status is already hinted at by the first scene set in a market, during which we see Ahmed and Isra’a paying 2,300 Yemeni rials for a kilo of potatoes.
There, they meet a colleague who asks Ahmed whether there are any updates on their salaries, and Ahmed answers that they should be paid out in a week. Later, Isra’a asks whether they can stop by a grocery store, but Ahmed tells her: “We better wait for the salary, you saw how expensive the vegetables were.”
After this simple but effective opening, we manage to discover more about the couple. The man used to work for a local TV network, but after several unpaid salary cheques, he is now trying to get by as a minibus driver.
Moreover, we find out that Ahmed and Isra’a cannot afford their flat anymore so they are about to move to a cheaper one that is crumbling and barely inhabitable. Things get even more complicated when Isra’a unexpectedly becomes pregnant. They both know they cannot afford to raise a fourth child, and they decide on an abortion.
However, in Yemen abortion is illegal and it is only permitted to save the life of a pregnant woman. Thus, Ahmed and Isra’a are forced to embark on an odyssey to find a doctor who could provide forged documents and perform the surgery.
In the meantime, Ahmed struggles to get his money back from the TV station and to make ends meet. At some point, Isra’a meets Muna (Samah Alamrani), a kind-hearted doctor and her close friend, who is reluctant to help owing to her religious beliefs.
On the whole, the leading characters are credible and well-developed. For example, Muna’s torment of deciding whether to help a loved one or to comply with her faith’s dogmas is plain to see on screen.
Besides, Ahmed’s willingness to earn money honestly while refusing the idea of working as a yes-man for another TV station, or Isra’a genuine fears about the surgery give both of their characters adequate depth.
In fairness, the visual look of Gamal’s film does not differ from that of many other politically committed pictures shot in the Middle East. For example, the camera – entrusted to DoP Mrinal Desai – is often static and delivers images with no frills. Occasionally, it goes wider in exterior locations in order to show the chaotic, buzzing world around the lead characters.
Meanwhile, the mise-en-scene and the production design – courtesy of Asim Abdulaziz and Tamim Mohammed – are minimal but look authentic. Despite a rather slow set-up, the pacing of the narrative gradually gets faster and more engaging.
All in all, Gamal crafts the sombre tale of a hard-pressed couple living in today’s Yemen.
Based on true events which took place around 2019 and enriched by the presence of understated acting performances, The Burdened offers the international audience a good snapshot of what is like living in Aden today, and how religious conservatism can make people’s lives unbearable.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni