Yemeni director Khadija Al-Salami tells Melanie Goodfellow about her struggle to bring the issue of child brides to the big screen in I Am Nojoom, Age 10 And Divorced.

Negotiating a ransom for a “kidnapped” electricity generator, breaking up scuffles between her crew and local bystanders on the streets of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and dodging state censorship were all in a day’s work for director Khadija Al-Salami on the shoot of I Am Nojoom, Age 10 And Divorced.

The film is an adaptation of Yemeni teenager Nujood Ali and French writer Delphine Minuoi’s international bestseller I Am Nujood, Aged 10 And Divorced, about the former’s bid to extricate herself from an abusive, arranged marriage to a much older man at the age of just 10 through Yemen’s courts.

The young girl’s story hit the global headlines in 2009 after her court battle came to light, making her a central figure in the movement against child brides in Yemen. According to United Nations and Yemeni government data, roughly 50% of girls in the country are married off before they turn 18 and 15% are wed before the age of 15.

The film, which is Al-Salami’s first feature after 25 documentaries focused on women’s issues in Yemen, premieres at DIFF this week in the Muhr Feature Competition.

Al-Salami is a DIFF regular having previously shown her Yemen-set documentaries Killing Her Is A Ticket To Paradise, about an outspoken female journalist who displeases hardline Islamists, and The Scream, about the role of women in the 2011 uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Shot on location in Yemen in the autumn of 2013, using local TV stars and amateur child actors, I Am Nojoom offers a rare cinematic insight into Yemeni life, both in the city and the countryside – its assured direction, masking the challenging nature of the shoot.

The Paris-based filmmaker, who herself fled an abusive arranged marriage as a child, talks about the making of the film.

What compelled you to bring Nujood Ali’s story to the big screen?

When I heard about Nujood’s story in the press, I contacted her personally because I wanted to encourage her. I was impressed by the way she went to the courts and asked for a divorce.

I’d been under the impression that early marriage was becoming less and less practised in Yemen and that the situation had changed from when I was a child, 30 years previously. 

When Nujood’s story came out it encouraged lots of other girls to come forward to talk about their problems. It made me realise that so many girls were undergoing this trauma and that it was still common practice.

Because this subject touched me personally, I wanted to show what is happening to the girls and show the real situation.

Families don’t do this because they are bad but more out of ignorance. I thought if I made a film, the story would reach a larger audience in Yemen, where many people don’t read and write, and perhaps encourage parents to think differently about the practice.

I’ve changed the name in the film from Nujood, which means ‘to hide’, to Nojoom which means ‘stars’.

How did you secure the rights to the book?

Convincing the publisher (Michel Lafon Publishing) to give me the rights was my first big challenge. When the book first came out, I found myself in competition with a French filmmaker who also wanted to make it.

She was better known and had done a lot of films, whereas I was on my first fiction feature, but she had never been to Yemen and didn’t know much about the culture. Also, in my favour, was that I was planning to shoot in Yemen, rather than somewhere else like Morocco, and that I had been through what Nujood had been through.

What was it like to shoot a film in Yemen?

It wasn’t easy. When I’m doing a documentary, I work on my own and can move about unnoticed, but for Nojoom I was moving around with some 30 people, between cast and crew.

Many of the rural locations had never seen a film shoot before so we drew a lot of attention – we got kicked out of a couple of villages before we found a place where we could film. In one village, they would play the drums really loudly at night so we couldn’t sleep.

This was before dealing with basic technical issues like securing electricity. It’s a luxury there to have even one hour of electricity, so I had to rent a generator – but this was ‘kidnapped’ and we had to pay to get it back. This took a few days but then got we couldn’t find diesel.

Security was also tricky. I was planning to work with a French cinematographer, but because of the security situation, I had to go to Egypt to find crew – it was impossible to find suitable people in Yemen – but the Egyptians had a hard time living in Yemen.

Shooting in Sanaa was also difficult, again because of the security situation, and also because people didn’t approve of the subject. I tried to be as discreet as possible and not talk about the subject of the film but it leaked out and we started getting grief from people who said it was all lies and that we were presenting a bad image of the country. Once when we were shooting a street scene, a scuffle broke out when a bystander pushed one of the crew and we had to call in the police.

I had to lie about the subject matter of the film when applying to the Ministry of Justice for a permit to shoot at the courthouse in Sanaa because the minister at the time was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and disapproved of the drive to pass a law banning early marriages.

I was in tears just about every day as I dealt with problem after problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money to get someone to shoot a ‘making of’ but I think it would have made for a fascinating film.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a book, which I can’t talk about right now, and then I plan to get to work on a new screenplay next year – a love story, maybe set in Yemen, may be in the Emirates, we’ll see.