Musical artist and producer Pharrell Williams may have never expected his ‘Happy’ video to be set in Yemen. The Yemeni people, many who continue to face challenges after the Jasmine Revolution—and many now facing drone violence— are still misunderstood. In fact, the world sees Yemen and its people as the opposite of ‘Happy’ and Western media accounts of the country reinforce this view.
In releasing ‘The Official Happy Yemen Video’Yemen adds to a string of ‘Happy’ videos shot around the world, and does this defiantly. A driving force behind the production is#SupportYemen, an independent media collective of organizers, activists, writers and artists aiming to convey “under-told and under-heard struggles” of the Yemeni people. Fortunate enough to speak with one of their key organizers Rooj Al Wazir for a previous Muftah article, I was compelled to follow up with Rooj after seeing ‘Happy Yemen.’ Rooj being the Production Manager of the video graciously agreed to share her thoughts in a Q&A below.
How did #SupportYemen think of doing an official ‘Happy’ video? What inspired you to do this?
We decided to do a Happy Video because we felt that many people appreciated the Inside Out Yemen art project not only in its creative presentation, but in it’s messaging. It resonated with a lot of people, so we wanted to continue. We asked ourselves what else can we do? Naturally as photographers and filmmakers, making a video came up. Simultaneously the ‘Happy’ video was going viral all over the world so we said why not join the bandwagon, change it up a bit and make it more Yemeni-centric. For example, in the video there is a part where the power goes out. We added this because while working on this video we had to work on it in darkness due to power cuts. By joining the buzz we believe we can get people to talk about Yemen the way we see it through our own eyes. Plus we really just wanted to have a little fun.
To my knowledge, the video is jointly created by #SupportYemen and Gabreez. Can you tell us about this collaboration?
Well Abdurahman Hussain and I began to work on this project together, then we heard that Gabreez (founded by Ameen and Ziryab al-Ghabiri ) were interested in doing a video and so we said instead of doing many happy Yemen videos, let’s collaborate and do one powerful one together. Abdurahman and Ameen have previously worked together for the film Karma Has No Walls which was nominated for an Oscar this year. It was my first time working with Ziryab and Ameen and I loved every moment of it.
Can you tell us a bit about the locations where the video is set (i.e where, why), and how you decided on where to film?
The video was shot in Sana’a and our aim was to show the different parts of the city and get as many people living in those areas involved. So we did a lot of scouting Then we began our filming. We went to the old city, malls, universities, libraries, restaurants, community centers, and work places. For the most part we tried to go to the people and in times where we couldn’t find someone willing to be filmed in their area, we would arrange for people who wanted to be in the video to meet us there. For instance, we had a guy who really wanted to dance in front of the graffiti wall in this random tucked away neighborhood. Because we couldn’t find anyone in that neighborhood to do it, we asked this guy to do it.
Did you face any logistical challenges making the video (expected, or unexpected)?
We had a lot of cancellations at the beginning because some people feared backlash, and others cancelled because of commitments they forgot to tell us about. This resulted in us doing a lot of waiting around and postponing that resulted in the film’s delayed release. But the biggest problem was electricity cuts and horrible Internet connection. Rendering took almost a week (if not more) and uploading it was a whole other story. It took an insanely long time.
How did you decide on the people who participated in the video? Was there a lot of enthusiasm and support for making a production like this?
I put a call out on Facebook and went around asking people on the streets if they would be interested in being part of a music video. I would pop out my headphones and ask children in the streets to listen to ‘Happy.’ If they liked it, I asked them to join us. We had a number of incredibly eager people who wanted to be a part of this and then the team just kept growing and growing as we started to film.
We really kept in mind making sure women were part of the video, and not just one or two, but half if not more. I loved everyone that was involved. Everyone was very flexible and rolled with the punches. They were really upbeat and excited because we were all having fun in the process.
What do you aim to accomplish by releasing ‘Happy Yemen’? How does the video fit with #SupportYemen’s overall mission?
We hope that people can see another side to Yemen. #SupportYemen aims to tell under-told stories and the happy video was a wonderful opportunity to do just that in a much more creative way. Often, Yemenis are portrayed in the media as helpless and depressed people in need of saving. We wanted to challenge that by creating a video that was based on recognizing our everyday hardships and struggles, but also tell a story of triumph, resilience and hope.
Is there anything else we should know about the video?
We are not claiming everyone in Yemen is happy. This was actually one of the first issues we struggled with: how do we do a ‘Happy’ video, when some of us, including myself, feel upset and angry most of the time over the amount of injustice and corruption we are forced to live under?
We are also not claiming to speak on behalf of all Yemenis. What we wanted to do and hoped to achieve is to create a space to talk about how some people, despite all the hardships, are creating love and happiness in their lives. This also doesn’t mean they are bystanders who are passive, or are becoming passive to the injustices and abusive behavior around them. Actually, many people in the film are actively creating and building alternative solutions, and working towards socio-political change in their communities.