Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Documentary Film Making in Yemen

One thing I became acutely aware of during my last Yemen visit, was the really odd workings done by the global media. Most of what comes out of Yemen, still today, is just so incredibly over dramatised and in many cases, just untrue. And, unfortunately, this is also the case as regards to the documentaries coming out of this thrilling, but very misunderstood country. It makes me sad.

Yesterday I watched a documentary on the best Scandinavian Channel, SVT, by a British documentary maker and journalist Sean McAllister called The Reluctant Revolutionary. Most of it was a disappointment, since very few docs come out of this country, and if they do, its like this one. Drama, war, death and bitterness. First of all, even if I understand he might have been pushed to say this to sell the film, he states he is the only foreign journalist in Yemen during the troubles. Which of course is a blatant lie. There where, and still is, plenty of them who stayed there all the time during the worst commotion from February to December 2011. Many Arab journalists, quite a few Anglo-Saxons and my very good friend, Tanya Holm, a Swedish premier journalist, was there all the time. And this is very typical for Western journalists to claim uniqueness. As it is within exploration. The British are unfortunately famed for claiming firsts that isn´t true at all. Well, most Swedes as well…

Anyway, I am working on my documentary about Yemen and it will be a very positive one, since that is the case with Yemen. It is a very positive experience and it is a country far more than the isolated city and capital of Sanaa. I don´t really like to say anything negative about anyone in my own line of work, but it is a sad fact the image of Yemen, as a war torn, deadly, kat chewing country continues after having seen that film.

The documentary is kind of narrated through Qais, a well known tourist guide and hotel owner from the Old City who belong, no matter how you see it, to the privilaged ones in Yemen. A lot of emphasis is put on his sufferings, but everyone during a situation like this one, is suffering. And he still has his cars, his office, his hotel and his kat. He is just not convincing enough. It would have been nice to get to know more Yemenis than Qais. Suddenly he becomes a spokesperson for all Yemenis who wants a change and a better future.

Footage is shaky. I can understand McAllister was scared, so was I, really scared to film, but this shaky….and not once is there a different perspective from the other side, in this case the government side. It is all anti Saleh, and this isn´t the case, it is half-half still, and one gets the feeling the Ali Mohsen is a great human in comparison. Which isn´t true. They´re all the same, these 2 half brothers.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKZ7t3c8Q1g]

That said, if he had only concentrated on the uprising, not letting Qais “narrate”, it would have been a good doc. Once he got into the drama of the March shootings, I felt sick. That is a good sign of good work from the film maker and his editor. Well, according to his homepage at http://www.seanmcallister.com/ , he has done the editing as well. I guess he just didn´t have enough material. He didn´t bother to get to know Yemen enough. And that was my feeling. This guy just doesn´t have a clue what Yemen is made up off. And, he set the bar immediately being stating he was the only foreign journalist in Sanaa…..by doing that, you can only loose.

I am editing on my pilot together with Ulrika Rang, a really good editor, and I feel very happy of the images I have seen. But I am far off from a ready film. One which will give a very positive perspective of Yemen, but more important, a true picture of normality. I hope! See how it goes. It is a really big worry I have that I won´t be able to make this country and its great people justice. It is so well deserved!



  1. Hello my dear Mikael,I’m Luca, the italian PhD student. I hope everything is fine with you and your family. I’ve just read your note and I’ve seen the documentary you’re talking about.Many of your critiques coincide with my own point of view on the documentary and on the current situation in Yemen. There’s just one paragraph which is – if not untrue – heavily misleading: the one about Qais. He’s one of my best friends, we lived together for many months and currently keep in touch every week. You’re right – obviously – when you say that he’s not the most representative of the yemenis (but an anthropologist would ask “who is”?). Anyway: he has never owned a hotel, he was just renting the building. And the hotel closed in 2010. He doesn’t own any car. He is more than 10 months late with the rent of his house, and fights every month to find the money for the office rent. I shouldn’t say this, but I’ve seen him more than one time without food and without the medicines for his newly born daughter. And qat… Everyone in Yemen has his ways to find money for qat (and you know that), even the poorest tribesman. He’s deeply troubled: less than some people and more than others. That’s what the documentary is about: it describes Qais’s decadence. And I’m sure that, for Qais, your note would be really harmful, since it depicts the man he’s not anymore. I wish you all the best and good luck for your documentary!

  2. Dear Luca, I appreciate your comment a lot. And I am upset with myself getting carried away,wrongly analyzing what I saw as regards to him -in the documentary it is said he has taken over a hotel after his father and there´s always a car involved somehow, the same one, blue with orange stripes on the side, an old Landcruiser- but, I should of course have checked all facts as well I just got so upset with another negative documentary about Yemen. I trust you 100% though and I hope your comment will be enough to put things straight. As regards to Qais.I also saw on McAllister´s home page that he has organized collecting funds to help Qais to fulfill his dreams. A move which is great and a right thing to do by McAllistar. In shallah, this will help him and his family. As for him being the voice of all Yemenis, you are right once again, but more voices needed, more opinions,from all angels of the problem, if the film is about the big troubles.I hope that Qais like other great Yemenis will have a better future soon. As for khat, having a family, you have to prioritize. Man or woman. That will always be my opinion. Family first, no matter what. But, once again, like my review of the documentary, that is my personal opinion.Luca, I or we, the whole family want to keep in contact with you. Your knowledge about Yemen is really vital in many ways! And I wish I had your courage and will power to experience Yemen! It would be great to see your film!Lots of love from all of us here!Mikael

  3. Dear readers, Emails are beginning to come in daily on this issue. One just arrived from a Yemen profile who prefer to be anonymous, but her comment is valid:Qais is portrayed in the film to show a personal side of the political situation however we do not see his suffering in a way I would see all of what Luca is saying that he is renting the hotel, needs money to pay for his office, money for medicine, and Qat. What I hear instead are his words, a male perspective and unfortunately, can be overtly stereotypical of Yemenis. The importance of film is to portray a ‘reality’ but more importantly, it is to let the viewer decide what that reality is. We all agree, the issue with this film is one sided politically and that it is only of one person – a man who does no reflect all of Yemen. Viewers are smart enough to ask for more than one voice on a issue, even if the journalist does not agree with all views.

  4. Dear Mikael,thank you so much for your kind response! I really appreciated it, since you perfectly got my point: I just wanted to make clear Qais’ situation. Thus forgive me if I won’t express my opinion about Sean’s documentary here: it’s controversial and summarizing it would be misleading. I look forward to see your documentary and I truly hope we’ll meet again and keep in touch, I crave to hear your amazing experiences! Send my greetings to your lovely family!Yours LucaP.S.It would be amazing to tell the story of that car(s): it would give an inner sight into family conflicts, economical processes, gender perspectives, social stratification… That’s the way i like to work 😉

  5. While in general we do not reply to online reviews we would like to make clear that : 1, At no time does Sean say he is the only journalist or filmmaker in the Yemen (though it is mentioned that he is the only remaining westerner left in his hotel), and maybe you missed the bit where Sean calls one of his filmmaker/journalist friends in The Yemen to see if they are ok etc. 2, Sean does not edit his own films and he never has done and his website has never claimed otherwise – I know this because (amongst many things) I am his web designer3, Kais is not and does not claim to be the voice of the revolution, and neither does the film make such a claim, infact the films’ title ‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’ sort of alludes to this fact. 4, It is not Sean’s job to be impartial and even-handed in his documentaries, he is not a journalist filing a report for the main news. 5, Yes his camera is shaky at times, I fail to see the point are you trying to make seeing as you follow it by what appears (apologies if I have misread your words) to be your admission that you failed to get yours out at a similar point in your film. By all means don’t like a film, we all have that right, but please don’t make-up facts to try and back-up your feelings towards this film. Thank you, mr rudeforth.

  6. Mr Rudeforth, as you probably know, being his web designer, when selling a film you send out programme info which is sent out to media and comes with the documentary and here it says clearly, though not said in the film, it says more or less:"When the Arabian Spring happened in Yemen, all journalists got thrown out except one- the documentary film maker Sean McAllister, who stayed to portray the lives of the people and their struggle for a better life."As I said maybe he didnt write this, but he must have okeyed it. As regards to him editing, in the credits at the end of the film I watched on Swedish television it says filmed and edited by Sean McAllister. If all this is wrong and not his own doing, I am sorry. But returning to the film, which he did…And in the beginning of the film, which also starts the trailer, they get stopped by rocks placed on the roads and this is made into being Al Qaeda. Anyone knows who have traveled any road in Sanaa and the north, dominated by the tribes, that this is done at regular basis by tribes men wanting either to collect some road fees or because they´re looking for some one. A road block.I am just fed up with over dramatizing the situation just to sell a film, Mr Rudeforth and there´s an overwhelmingly positive place. Go there yourself and see. This country needs to be portrayed in a positive light. This is my main critique.

  7. From memory at the beginning of the film Sean asks if it is Al Qaeda but the reply is that it is tribesmen and that they will be ok because they are from the same tribe as Kais, or whoever it was that replied to Sean’s question…And without being pedantic (also because I don’t wish to get into an endless daft circular argument) you said that his website claimed that Sean had edited the film, but now you are saying it was the credits…. And your point about him claiming to be the only journalist/filmmaker left in the Yemen misleadingly created the impression that this was something Sean said in the film, not as some bumpf that may have gone out to TV companies beforehand…Anyway I shall still ask Sean about these points so we can get them cleared up. On a personal level when I saw the film I was moved by the heroism / bravery, call it what you will, of the ordinary people in the face of government violence against them… I don’t know why you see the film as negative, people standing up for their rights is always positive, surely?

  8. Ok I have just spoken to Sean and he is adamant that the programme notes (he can forward them to you if you wish) do not say Sean was the only journalist (a phrase he never uses about himself) or filmmaker in town, and that such words can only be from journalists notes, from people reviewing the film, words which he cannot control.The film credits say that Johnny Burke is the editor.

  9. Kev, I agree, we won´t get further in this discussion. Say hello to Sean and I will talk to SVT and see who put that text together. From now on it is up to each one to read this and make up their own mind. Making docs is such a huge responsibility. You can help or destroy an issue. And in this case, it harms more than helps in my opinion.If you take a bit of time to check other docs or media coming out of Yemen, you will see it is overwhelmingly negative. It portrays the country as infested with Al Qaeda, violence, qat chewing, war, danger…Kev, this is not Yemen. This is an untrue picture. And for us who love the country, its people and who actually have travel through it and outside Sanaa, Taizz or Aden…. well,for me it is one of the safest countries in the world, once you avoid certain areas,like in any country, the UK included, which are a few, no more. So, I want docs coming out of this country who are positive and not generalizing.Have a look here at http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/2012/03/02/expedition-yemen-by-camel-arriving-at-bab-al-yemen/ This is the summary of what I think.But, Kev, at the end of the day, it is just a question of different outlook on life. I concentrate on the positive, or at least I try to. I look for the positive aspects of an issue, its is my job as an explorer.And as a doc maker.I respect you for voicing your opinions and defending your point in an un-dramatic way. Thank you. It is here for all to read.

  10. Due to far too much work, I forgot to mention that I talked to SVT and one of the ones in charge of buying documentaries. Everything they narrate or use as text material comes from Sean McAllistar himself. As I said, selling docs myself, I am the one responsible for all texts and all material i supply each channel with. The feedback on this article has been enormous. It is something which touches peoples mind, especially those journalists who are still In Yemen and who was there at the same time as McAllister. They´re the one´s which notified me at the first place. I have also received quite a few comments positive to the documentary. All non-Yemeni.

  11. By the way, I was watching another half hour documentary on PBS/Frontline called Al Qaeda in Yemen. Am back home now. And that reminded me of this documentary above here and I just want to mention I met Qais in Sanaa and his life was very difficult after the making of the documentary. I will write an article on that subject soon. He has asked me for assistance. Here´s a photo of our meeting http://instagram.com/p/OFUrc6MUT8/ He was very eager to meet me. A very nice lad! More to come! Remember all that you see from yemen, well, most, isn´t the way it is.

  12. Salmon Fishing in Yemen by the swede Lasse Hallström, I saw that last night and I don´t who his adviser was, but obviously not a Yemeni. I saw it was recorded in Morocco. It wasn´t the greatest of films, but a love story is a love story, so I enjoyed it! And missed my own fishing. It is 6 years since I did any serious fishing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.