A group of youths are working on a broad campaign to re-open and reinvigorate Yemen’s public and private movie theaters, which have been closed since the era of Yemeni President-Martyr Ibrahim al-Hamdi.
In the youths’ meeting at the headquarters of the Hood Organization today, they agreed on a set of new initiatives. These included developing their focus on the private sector to find interested companies, and then turning to government bodies to propose a project in which the private sector will build new theaters. Other plans involve establishing open theaters playing films in open arenas, in order to attract new groups to the cinema.
Movie theaters first appeared in Yemen in 1950’s Aden, from whence they slowly spread to the rest of Yemen’s southern and eastern provinces. South Yemen enjoyed 24 theaters until reunification in 1990. From a grand total of 49 theaters across unified Yemen, currently on 10 theaters still remain. Most of them continue to play old films, while others have upgraded from old projectors to new equipment capable of playing CDs and DVDs.
In one of the oldest theaters in Aden city, Aref Nagi sits in his office and remembers how his movie house used to fill with hundreds of people coming to watch movies each day. The building has now been converted into a wedding hall after the theaters lost their connection to the audiences that used to fill them.
According to Nagi, the status of theaters in Yemen has reached a nadir. All movie theaters are closed, or have turned to simply playing movies off DVDs. Some have become venues for theatrical concerts during holidays.
In an interview with Al Jazeera Net, Nagi expressed his sadness at the state of cinema in Aden, where Yemen first discovered motion pictures. Aden had known of motion pictures since not long after the film era began, back when Adeni audiences watched silent films in the first days of their existence. .
Nagi now works as the manager of “Crown Hall,” a wedding venue. The building used to be known as Tawahi Cinema, but those days are long passed. The government hasn’t helped in the decline of the cinema industry, says Nagi. Yemen authorities have shown little interest in this artistic and cultural art form, and some theaters have been forced to rob their own possessions just to stay afloat.
On other hand, the manager of the Aden Cultural Center Hafez Mustafa Ali considers that the absence of a Yemeni film industry cannot be blamed solely on Yemeni factors. The proliferation of electronic media and the Internet are also behind the disappearance of theaters in Yemen and other Arab countries.
Regarding Aden, who once led Yemen in number of cinemas (topping out at 13), Mustafa told Al Jazeera Net that the demise of those theaters came because they were a part of the pre-unity southern state. Although the cinemas were returned to their original owners after the 1990 unification, something had been lost. Specifically, a soviet system.
After unification, the owners of the theaters in Aden could not afford to buy movies from outside the country because of their prices. Prior to unification, these theaters had bought or rented films at very low rates from the General Organization for Cinema
The absence of theaters, says Mustafa, has had an impact on the cadres who are qualified to work with films and made their role in Yemen almost nonexistent, except for some individual initiatives or those associated with foreign organizations showing documentary or tourism films.
Unfortunately, the situation of the theaters in Northern governorates isn’t any better than that of the southern city.
Today in Sana’a, we found only one theater open out of four venues in the city. Three were closed, including Sana’a largest theater, Balkis Cinema, located in Tahrir Square. Balkis closed its doors in 2004, following the closing of Hadah cinema and Khaldh Cinema in the political district in 2003. In this list of theaters, only al-Dar al-Ahalih Cinema in Shaob district remains, west of the old Sana’a city. Al-Dar al-Ahalih Cinema is the second cinema opened in Sana’a. It opened its doors in 1962 and played primarily Hindi films, which were also the first films to enter Yemen after the formation of the Yemeni Arab Republic.
Film critic Abed Rabbo al-Haythami said that at the end of the seventies, the Public Institution for Theater and Cinema began to fall apart. One symptom of this collapse was an end to the import of new films. The Institution had contracted production and marketing of films with a number of international companies, from whom it bought new films and rented them to Yemeni theaters at cheap rates.
As the Institution’s activity slowed down, however, theater departments in the northern provinces had no means to face this problem. At the same time, the proliferation of satellite channels, internet cafes and DVD stores sapped theaters’ audiences, which were already dwindling as theaters failed to provide new entertainment.
Al-Dar al-Ahalih Cinema is the only theater still operating in the city. A few moviegoers attend shows each day. Cinema administrators tried to handle the paltry attendance by displaying new Indian films, but the theaters in general display a lack of attention to aesthetics. The cinema is focused primarily on turning a profit, without much care for showrooms, cleanliness, or maintenance of facilities.
Despite its moniker of “Cultural Capital of Yemen,” Taiz was similarly hardly able to preserve its theaters.
Theater director Ahmed Ali Jabara said that although the number of cinemas in Taiz was never high, the city played a major role in spreading culture. Unfortunately, now there no theaters in the city; they, too have been transformed into wedding hall and concerts halls. Jabara remembers the “Palace Sheba Cinema,” which has now embraced celebrations of the singer Abu Bakr and others as well. This theater is the best in Taiz by location and the size, and we hope it may still be repaired to suit the times, perhaps one day returning to showing films to Yemeni cinemaphiles.
In the past, Taiz’ theaters made active, concrete contributions in the field of awareness and education. Today no such contribution exists, according to the Director General of the Cultural Center in Taiz, Abdullah Ahmad al-Mulyki. He also talked about the main reasons that led to the closing of Taiz’ theaters.
“There are a number of reasons Taiz lost the cultural function and awareness of its theaters, such as neglect by the theater’s owner on the development and refurbishment of theater facilities. Also, they don’t provide the latest films. Dated films lack a political, cultural, and social entertainment purpose. The theaters in Taiz today give an inverse image of the civilization concept; they often just display meaningless pornographic films.”
According to al-Mulyki, Taiz theaters have lost their censorship. It the past, before any film was shown, it had to be reviewed by the Department of Workbooks in the Culture Office for acceptance or refusal. Al-Montazah Cinema was the only Taiz venue that offers good and meaningful films. Most of its audiences were educated people. Like its brothers, al-Montazah has also closed its doors. The local council turned it into a tourist center and private commercial offices.
The cinema collects all art forms into one, and it carries an educational and developmental message. It supports industry and trade and serves as a national resource for a whole manner of professionals, including writers, directors, actors, photographers and countless workers in front of and behind the cameras. Unfortunately, this is a scene that today does not exist in Yemen.