War and Trauma in Yemen: Asim Abdulaziz’s “1941”

15 July, 2022

 

Out­take from Asim Abdu­laz­iz’s exper­i­men­tal short film, 1941, 2021 (cour­tesy Asim Abdulaziz).

 

 

Farah Abdessamad

 

Yemen-based Adeni artist Asim Abdu­laz­iz (b.1996) is obsessed with one ques­tion: what has war made us become?

The artist’s ques­tion lends itself to an appraisal of the effect of vio­lence and trau­ma on human lives. As a result of sev­en years of con­tin­u­ous war in Yemen, which by the end of last year the Unit­ed Nations esti­mat­ed had caused upwards of 350,000 direct and indi­rect deaths (from famine and dis­ease), and with the back­drop of a frag­ile UN-bro­kered truce, Abdu­laz­iz chose to explore this com­plex­i­ty using an exper­i­men­tal form. His 1941 is Yemen’s first exper­i­men­tal film. It dis­cuss­es mas­culin­i­ty, agency, lim­i­nal­i­ty, and the val­ue we ascribe to time and place.

With­out any dia­logue, the film opens on a cloudy sun­rise. We rec­og­nize Aden’s vol­canic moun­tains and, soon after, a build­ing appears nest­ed against the rock. This sin­gle loca­tion — a 19th cen­tu­ry Hin­du tem­ple — is where men mechan­i­cal­ly knit with red yarn.

Dif­fer­ent scenes depict the mul­ti­lay­ered, sen­so­ry forms of trau­ma-gen­er­at­ing alien­ation in solo shots and group set­tings. For instance, young men knit in uni­son while walk­ing down the temple’s beau­ti­ful­ly-carved wood­en stair­case. They look alike — close­ly shaved heads, shirt­less, with grey slack pants. Their hands ani­mate as in a chore­og­ra­phy, obey­ing to an invis­i­ble urge to com­mune. Their walk is stiff, soldier-like.

While the char­ac­ters are seem­ing­ly con­strained by their own inner tor­ment, they move togeth­er. Their des­tinies and shared expe­ri­ence some­times binds them in more inti­mate ways — lit­er­al­ly. A sense of inex­tri­ca­bil­i­ty aris­es when two char­ac­ters have their heads con­joined and wrapped in red yarn. The threads are pulled with arach­nid patience; their lay­ers chan­nel the sacred­ness of a mum­mi­fi­ca­tion process.

Nar­ra­tive­ly, the film fol­lows a non-sequen­tial suite of sym­bol­isms touch­ing upon inter-gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, mix­ing old and young char­ac­ters. No one is spared from a hag­gard exis­tence. While a boy awk­ward­ly learns to manip­u­late his knit­ting nee­dles tight­ly framed by a suf­fo­cat­ing win­dow, an old­er man with a salt-and-pep­per beard observes his long scarf. He’s expe­ri­enced a great deal and we think not only of the most recent con­flict but also of the civ­il war in 1994.

Out­take from Asim Abdu­laz­iz’s exper­i­men­tal short film, 1941, 2021 (cour­tesy Asim Abdulaziz).

The char­ac­ters avoid star­ing direct­ly at the cam­era. We hard­ly iden­ti­fy them and in some cas­es, a decoy such as a rock masks their faces. In doing so, Abdu­laz­iz remind us of an indis­crim­i­nate qual­i­ty. Anx­i­ety, depres­sion, and post-trau­mat­ic stress can affect any­one. The body hosts these psy­cho­log­i­cal assaults. Along with insert­ed cuts show­ing the decayed appear­ance of the building’s walls, the film presents a phys­i­cal alle­go­ry of fragility.

The knit­ting balls that pop­u­late the film are the exter­nal pro­jec­tions of rumi­na­tions, mean­der­ings, and the hazi­ness of resilience. In one room, they hang from the ceil­ing with­out touch­ing the floor — sus­pend­ed, incom­plete, vul­ner­a­ble. Windswept, they evoke a sense of floata­tion, uproot­ed­ness, and chal­lenge the pos­si­bil­i­ty of firm anchoring.

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Abdu­laz­iz came cross an arti­cle in 2020 recall­ing a cov­er of Life mag­a­zine from Novem­ber 1941, which described knit­ting as a war effort dur­ing the WWII. This arti­cle led came to influ­ence his film’s title, 1941, and for the artist to reflect on util­i­tar­i­an­ism, dis­trac­tion, and emo­tion­al expres­sion. “In Yemen and in the Mid­dle East, men aren’t allowed to express their emo­tions. They always need to be tough and emo­tion­al­ly detached. But in fact, what I real­ized when I returned from Yemen after liv­ing in Kuala Lumpur for four years is that men also have emo­tions and they can expe­ri­ence depres­sion and anx­i­ety,” he told The Markaz Review. Upon return­ing to Aden in 2019, he imme­di­ate­ly noticed people’s emp­ty gaze. 

The cin­e­matog­ra­phy cre­at­ed by Abdul­rhman Baha­roon embraces visu­al con­trast, from Aden’s lumi­nos­i­ty to the cav­ernous insides of the tem­ple, from the building’s mint and white-paint­ed walls to the splash of red yarns against the char­ac­ters’ neu­tral-warm tones. The char­ac­ters some­times dou­ble like mir­rors, twins, and clones. Their still­ness com­bined with the dynam­ic act of knit­ting offer depth in how we under­stand move­ment and the hyper-sen­so­r­i­al ways of liv­ing in the world.

Asim Abdu­laz­iz is an exper­i­men­tal film direc­tor and pro­duc­er. His work has been exhib­it­ed local­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly, from Aden to Wash­ing­ton DC and the Unit­ed King­dom. It has also been fea­tured in The Wash­ing­ton Post, Art­News, i‑D, and Hype­beast amongst oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Asim won both the 2020 “Artist Sup­port Grant” by the Arab Funds For Arts and Cul­tures (AFAC) which helped him devel­op the con­cept of his cur­rent project Home­sick, and the 2021 Masarat grant by the British Coun­cil for his short film, ‘1941’.

To where does the stair­case lead and does it allow any escape? And what are these sounds made up of what seems to encom­pass metal­lic nee­dles click­ing against each oth­er, locusts, and a print room? In this rhyth­mic white noise of per­cus­sions and buzzing, the film rein­ter­prets aer­i­al bom­bard­ments and the com­mo­tion of war.

1941 embod­ies time, incar­nat­ed in the phys­i­cal­i­ty of a build­ing and in these bod­ies. Abdu­laz­iz searched for a loca­tion for over five months until he remem­bered this Hin­du tem­ple in Khusaf, near Crater, one of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal her­itage sites that still stand in the diverse city that prides itself for its tol­er­ance. “The tem­ple rep­re­sents Aden, beau­ti­ful but neglect­ed. It’s the city itself,” Abdu­laz­iz said. 

The tem­ple assumes mul­ti­ple func­tions. In our imag­i­na­tion, it can be a hive, sanc­tu­ary, asy­lum, sana­to­ri­um. Time can feel dif­fract­ed and end­less, such as when fig­ures fol­low each oth­er in cir­cles, or a more lin­ear, for instance in the old man’s long scarf. Time can be insid­i­ous and a thief; men knit in their backs, uncon­scious of what their hands produce.

The film poignant­ly reasserts a form of slow­ness in var­i­ous propo­si­tions on tem­po­ral­i­ty as a form of solace, nec­es­sary accept­abil­i­ty, and tor­ture. Sim­plic­i­ty, in décor and motion, is an artis­tic tool. “I always try to pro­duce art and films that have a sim­plic­i­ty that reflects Yemeni life that out­siders might not know much about,” Abdu­laz­iz said in a recent inter­view with the Arab Gulf States Insti­tute in Washington.

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In focus­ing on the human scale, Abdu­laz­iz tries to under­stand how war shapes and trans­forms — an event seen as a dis­ori­en­ta­tion, numb­ness, and nudge. “We are still fac­ing a war, a psy­cho­log­i­cal war, liv­ing under threats. For exam­ple, in the past two months we have expe­ri­enced three car bomb­ings, includ­ing close to my office. War is not about hav­ing an army that comes and attack anoth­er city. For me it’s about feel­ing unsafe,” he said, not­ing the dai­ly hard­ships and short­ages that Ade­nis con­tin­ue to face.

1941 reminds of the artist’s pre­vi­ous pho­tog­ra­phy work, Unti­tled (2019), in which he peels pota­toes blind­fold­ed among rub­bles. The artists see his first film as a “shift” using anoth­er medi­um to relent­less­ly inter­ro­gate psy­chol­o­gy and men’s emo­tion­al density.

The film pre­miered at the Cana­da Short Film Fes­ti­val in 2021, where it won dis­tinc­tions in Best Exper­i­men­tal Film and Best Cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Abdu­laz­iz was rec­og­nized as Best Kara­ma Yemen Human Rights Film Fes­ti­val (2022) and Best Inde­pen­dent Film at the Spot­light Short Film Awards (2021). It also fea­tures at the 12th Berlin Bien­nale for Con­tem­po­rary Art (2022).

Around one in five peo­ple in Yemen suf­fer from men­tal health dis­or­ders accord­ing to a 2017 study, a fig­ure like­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed giv­en exist­ing stig­ma and the dif­fi­cul­ty in access­ing men­tal health care ser­vices.  Dr. Bilqis Jubari, the founder of Yemen’s first pub­lic men­tal health ser­vice in 2011, thinks it’s clos­er to one in three.

There are few­er than 50 psy­chi­a­trists in Yemen and only four pub­lic psy­chi­atric health facil­i­ties across the coun­try. In the absence of acces­si­ble health­care, it’s not uncom­mon for peo­ple to cope with anx­i­ety and insom­nia by con­sum­ing more qat and adopt­ing oth­er risky behav­iors. Depres­sion, gen­der-based vio­lence and sui­cides are on the rise since the start of the war. Years ago, I vis­it­ed an insti­tu­tion in Aden which kept peo­ple suf­fer­ing from men­tal health dis­or­ders in cages; many of them were shack­led to their beds. And cus­tom­ary beliefs often pre­vail, assign­ing a men­tal health con­di­tion to being pos­sessed by a djinn.

 “A lot of peo­ple mis­un­der­stood my ideas. They didn’t see them as seri­ous top­ics to be dis­cussed. But the more they see my work, the more they start to under­stand and sup­port my work,” Abdu­laz­iz said.

 

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