In her first feature film, “I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced”, Yemeni director Khadija al-Salami tells the story of Yemen’s most famous child divorcee. But it’s also a retelling of the Paris-based filmmaker’s own life story.
When Nojoom first learned that her father had arranged to marry her off, she did not know her future husband – nor, for that matter, what a marriage was all about.
The 10-year-old native of the Yemeni capital Sanaa believed that marriage entailed a “fairytale princess” white dress. For her – as for many girls across the world – marriage was a sequined fantasy that included a Prince Charming and a vague “happily ever after” ending.
But that’s not what happens in Khadija al-Salami’s film, “I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced” (Ana Nojoom Bent Alasherah Wamotalagah). In the chillingly realistic film, little Nojoom is forcibly married, raped on her wedding night, and subjected to sexual and psychological abuse until she manages to escape. She seeks the protection of a judge in Sanaa who decides to take her case to court. After a farcical trial, Nojoom gets a divorce – the first-ever for a child bride in Yemen.
Delights of childhood, brutality of tradition
One in three girls is married before the age of 18 in Yemen and one in seven before the age of 15, according to UNICEF. In September 2013, the case of Rawan, an 8-year-old girl who died of internal bleeding on her wedding night, made international headlines and sparked an outcry against child marriages. Yemen ranks second in the Middle East and North Africa region in early marriages per capita, after Sudan.
The strength of al-Salami’s film is not so much the theme of violence as the way it is portrayed. To illustrate the absurdity of early marriages, the director often juxtaposes the delights of childhood against the brutality of Yemeni traditions. The 10-year-old central character trades her engagement ring for a doll – which she clutches during the wedding ceremonies – and at one point, Nojoom abandons the festivities to slip out and play hopscotch with her friends.
The gritty portrayal is sometimes forced, but never caricatured. Based on the true story of Nujood Ali, a gutsy Yemeni girl who became the world’s youngest divorcée in 2008 after escaping her marriage, the film bears the same title as a book on Ali’s story ghostwritten by French journalist Delphine Minoui.
Now 16, Ali has chosen the name Nojoom, which means “stars in the sky”, instead of Nujood, which means “hidden”.
‘Women are a curse’
The first feature film by the documentary filmmaker and women’s rights advocate is more than just a retelling of Ali’s case – it’s a reliving of al-Salami’s own story.
“I lived the same experience as Nujood/Nojoom at 11,” said al-Salami at a film screening earlier this week at the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) in Paris. “I had to fight against family, against society. Now that I’m an adult, I wanted to make a movie that was a wake-up call.”
Born in Sanaa, al-Salami was forced into an early marriage at 11 by her uncle, who was her guardian after her mother divorced her violent father. Escaping the abusive marriage was a difficult journey for the young girl, who finally received a scholarship to study in the United States before she settled in Paris.
In the film al-Salami is critical of social customs and the lack of education in a country where 54.5% of Yemenis live below the poverty line.
But the film also presents a nuanced insight into how societal values entrap individuals. During the divorce proceedings, Nojoom’s father and husband are never portrayed as villainous predators but as impoverished, illiterate men unable to comprehend the problem. “But tell me what crime have I committed?” repeats the husband, more fearful of the reaction of his village sheikh than by the court sentencing or the gravity of his act.
At times the director even seems to sympathise with Nojoom’s father. When he uncomprehendingly explains to the judge that he married off his daughter to protect her from being “dishonoured” after her sister was raped by one of the men in the village, he says, “Women are a curse.” The statement is not portrayed as a critique of the father’s patriarchal values, but as a basic postulate rooted in Yemeni society.
“The problem in Yemen is not only the behaviour of the husband or the father, it is above all poverty, illiteracy, ignorance,” explained al-Salami.
The final image of the film features the words, “Knowledge is light,” written on a blackboard.
The biggest challenge in tackling the issue of child marriages is the absence of relevant legislation. “There is no law in Yemen banning marriage between partners under 18 years, so we had to find another way of denouncing forced marriages,” al-Salami said. “With this film, I want to force parents to reflect on their actions … For that, I would like to screen the film in every village across my country.”
Given the current security situation in Yemen, it’s unlikely that al-Salami will be able to realise that dream. But the 49-year-old director has been careful to present a realistic portrayal of the story, one that Yemenis can recognise and relate to.
“I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced” was shot entirely in Yemen, despite the difficulties, the obstacles, the lack of a cinema culture — and without authorisation.
Al-Salami shot the film clandestinely, making it the first feature film to be shot entirely on Yemeni soil. “It had to be done there,” she stressed. “I was offered the chance to shoot it in Morocco, and I said no. But I must admit that this shoot was a nightmare from start to finish,” she said with a laugh.
Afraid of being blocked and unable to complete the film, al-Salami kept the subject of the film secret. Even the actors only vaguely knew the theme being addressed. “I was very discreet, all the time. I had to shoot the wedding night scene, for example, on the last day, at the last moment. I also lied to the court for permission to shoot on their premises. I told them I was telling the story of a ‘girl’ who wants a divorce, not a ‘little girl’,” she explained. “The film crew was driven out of some villages, we faced power cuts … it was completely surreal.”
Surreal, but necessary. “It was like a blow to my solar plexus,” said French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, visibly moved, at the screening. She then hugged al-Salami, prompting thunderous applause.
The next challenge for al-Salami is to find a film distributor. “It needs to be seen, it must be shown to the general public. Because everyone needs to know.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.