Tonight at 20.30 at Open Plaza Cinema in San Francisco The US Premiere for the Yemen Documentary. There´s no doubts at all. It is a highlight in my life. It sounds dramatic and for me it is. Possibly only for me. Because when I browse through the list of my competitors at the legendary Arab Film Festival it seems like they all are really proven, well known and experienced. I guess for them, like last years Oscars nominated Sara Ishaq with her new film Mulberry House, (her previous film was Karama Has No Walls) this is one of many honors. But not for me. This is far bigger than I ever expected with this film and it is important for me, because it gives a different perspective of this great country Yemen, which is so misunderstood and misrepresented in media. Unfortunately i couldn´t make there myself. My wife is doing a really important project and I have to look after the girls. Which is more than fine. Such is life right now. Family is the main priority of course! Nevertheless I have at least three people in the audience. My friends Tom and Tina Sjögren from ExplorersWeb and hopefully Sharon, who was one of my clients in Africa a month and a half ago. Hopefully I will get a bit of feedback this time. I haven´t heard anything from the others I have been selected for. I have no idea why.
My biggest worry since the day I decided to put all my life into doing a documentary about Yemen, has been whether I would be able to do this great country justice. Even today, whilst writing this article thenews coming out of Yemen is as always extremely negative. This unfortunate fact also applies to documentaries made about Yemen. Just after my second visit to the country 2011, during the big battle between Abdullah Ali Saleh, Ali Mohsen and the Al Ahmar Clan, a documentary was broadcast over the Western world, where a British reporter amazingly claimed he was the only foreign journalist in Yemen. His documentary is also extremely misleading. Sure, it was done during a time where filming wasn´t all that easy. It was even at times a dangerous activity, but definitely possible. But not only does it seem like it was partly filmed by somebody else, but it was one of these documentaries purely made to sell to make a buck, make the film maker into a hero and claiming, like it is in the Expedition world, to be unique and having done a world first. Claims, as in this case, often originating from the UK. Sure, I have made claims like that in the past, but I have to say it had to do with youth, bad self-confidence and pure stupidity. But with age, you realize the harm claims like these do. Especially when it involves a whole country and its reputation.
A year later a journalist for whom I had a lot of confidence in does a documentary for PBS about Al Qaeda in Yemen. It is another horror movie about Yemen, making the viewer believe Al Qaeda or AQAP or Ansar Al-Sharia are all over Yemen. I fought a battle with Swedish Television not to broadcast the documentary. I found it misleading. They still did broadcast it. Most likely due to that it was a PBS job and they do come across more serious than a Fox News production. For me it was a poor job done, all horror, where we as viewers where narrated one thing, but seeing something else. And the main drama was the reporter´s upcoming meeting with one of the real leaders of AQAP, which never materialized. Poor drama. And yet another documentary adding salt to Yemen´s already poor reputation as being one of the most dangerous countries on earth.
On the other side of the coin, a Swede Lasse Hallström made a Hollywood film called Salmon Fishing In Yemen. During this time I received quite a few emails from people saying what a beautiful and peaceful country Yemen seemed to be. It is even more beautiful than in the film I told them and added that nothing was filmed in Yemen, but in Scotland and Morocco. I understand the impossibility for a big production of getting an insurance to do the job in Yemen, but at least one could bring on some Yemeni expert on the research team.
All this was happening whilst I was doing my own filming. In two parts. One for three months at the end of 2011 and one for three months 4 months later in 2012. In between I closely followed news and developments every day. Yemen had all my attention and I felt bad at all the negative news, which even made me much more worried than I generally am, because I knew I had to do something which I personally considered more just and better. I had also done the mistake of promising everybody I was dealing with in Yemen, that I was going to do a documentary which would show the other side of this amazing country. The overwhelmingly positive. That bragging is another reason I since the day I decided to do the documentary, early 2011, until today, have been very, very worried. it is so easy to get caught up with other issues! Because Yemen is a very complicated matter!
My first idea when I started out sketching how I wanted the documentary, was that I wanted to do a journey across Yemen By Camel. Camel, because I admire and love this animal and walking definitely makes a visitor get closer to the people one comes across, compared to for example travelling by car or bicycle. Sure, many Yemenis I have met during my travels fully doesn´t understand neither the concept of walking or travelling with a camel, but at least we meet relatively offhand. For this reason I don´t want either a big team or a big camera accompanying me. I want to keep it small and easy. Non offensive and threatening.
I was also aware of the negative attitude prevailing in the West towards Islam, Arabs and the Middle East in general and at first I wanted, somehow, to try to change this mindset a bit, though I didn´t want to lecture. And I was profoundly aware that much better human beings and documentary makers have tried this before me and failed, so after awhile I realized I had to avoid politics, religion, bitterness, hatred and concentrate on doing what I have always done, meeting people during quite extreme travel.
And I am happy I took this choice, because I feel I really have done a documentary which is fair, positive, funny and presents Yemen the way I see it. Like a great dream! It is kind of a road movie involving Kensington The Camel, Tanya Holm and me. Great nature, full of drama, beautiful, and array of great people and never, ever boring. It took 2 ½ years to figure it out and making a documentary is an Expedition itself, full of obstacles and pot holes. And it couldn´t have been done without the help of others. Especially my editor, Ulrika, was like a Godsend. She knew every emotion, every thought which went through my head and was able to steer me in the right direction. Others have had their valuable opinions, and this is extremely important whilst producing a film, to have a team who have opinions. For this reason, I concentrated fully on the second part of the trip, the one through Al Mahra. Leaving me with 200 hours of film not used at this stage. I have done one film for TV and will start working on one for the movie theater, for the Festivals and the base will be the same, but it is a different audience.
However, most of all, I look forward to the day it can be broadcast and viewed in Yemen. And remember, it is not a political, religious or opinionated documentary, just a simple observational road movie.
Expedition Yemen – 126 degrees In The Shade (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from Explorer Mikael Strandberg on Vimeo.
Most of all, it wouldn´t have been possible to do this documentary without the great help of all Yemenis I have come across throughout the years! Thanks! You will always, always be a positive part of my heart!