In a country like Yemen girls don’t have any childhood. They are married off early, some even at the age of 10. And the child brides often have to suffer in silence. The story of Khadija Al-Salami, however, is different. She got married and divorced at 11. Nujood Ali’s story too has a similar story to tell. She too got divorced at 10. Today, Ali is a prominent figure in Yemen, who fights against child marriages. Ali also chronicled her experiences in a book, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, which has been co-authored by French journalist Delphine Minoui.
Khadija, the first woman filmmaker from Yemen, realised that Nujood’s story needs to be told to the world and what better medium than celluloid. Having made 25 documentaries focusing on children and women, Khajida, also the recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, chose to make her debut feature film on child brides. The filmmaker also serves as Press and Cultural attache and director of the Yemeni Information Centre at the Embassy of Yemen in Paris. The film, I Am Nojoom Age 10 And Divorced, though based on Ali’s book, also portrays Khajida’s struggle as a child bride. Khadija was in Kolkata to attend the screening of her film at the 21st Kolkata International Film Festival. She also runs an organisation in Yemen, which takes care of the education of 550 girls. HT caught up with the director on Paris attack, the importance of education and a war-torn Yemen.
You weren’t in Paris during the terrorist attacks.
I was shocked after learning about the incident. Unfortunately, all these attacks are expected because we know people are being brainwashed. We just let them happen. The authorities should do more about it by educating people and fight against these attackers. It’s not only against France... it’s against humanity. We are all targeted by these fundamentalists. They might be minorities but they are dangerous. They are willing to kill everyone, even themselves. This is scary.
What made you come up with this film?
Child marriage is one of the major issues in Yemen. 52% of girls get married before they are 18. Fourteen per cent of the girls get married before they are 14. It’s also my story. I was married when I was 11 but I also got a divorce. I want to create awareness through this film. I want girls to come out and speak their mind and seek help.
What’s the present state of girls in Yemen?
They are in a devastating state especially in the villages. There are many who get traumatised because of early sexual experiences and die of excessive bleeding. Many girls die during child birth. Most parents are ignorant and force their daughters to get married because of extreme poverty. The government isn’t taking any initiative. After the book came out, NGOs and women activists have started trying for the enforcement of a new law against child marriage. The new law was to be adapted but unfortunately, there is a war in Yemen now. Now, the priorities of the people and the country have changed. We are fighting for survival and shelter now. So, child and women rights are no longer a priority.
Your 10-year-old niece plays the lead in this disturbing film. It must have been difficult to explain the subject to her.
I basically relied on my sister, as I didn’t know how to explain the subject to her. It was my sister, who made her understand the situation and prepared her to face the camera. My niece cried a lot after watching the film. We also faced a lot of obstacles during the shooting. After shooting for two days in a village, the authorities came to know about it and deleted everything from the camera. I couldn’t even screen the film in Yemen.
You got married and divorced at the age of 11. Is the film also a personal account?
Definitely. There are some portions in the film which resemble my early life. Nujood and I have experienced similar things. We both are shy but at the same time, we were determined to fight for our rights.
You must have met Nujood Ali.
Of course! After hearing her story, all I wanted was to support her. I told her that education is the most important thing in life. I told her if she wants to leave behind her past and move on, she needs to educate herself. She is 19 now.
Did Nujood Ali watch the film?
No. I wanted to show her the film but the war started in Yemen and now, they cannot come out of the country. It’s blocked. I cannot even go to my country. It’s been a year since I have visited Yemen.
You also run an organisation, which helps in educating girls in Yemen.
I know how important education is. I am trying in my own modest way to help the girls. There are 550 girls in my foundation. There are many families that fail to send their daughters to schools. For the last six years, we have been helping these girls. During summer, we organise conferences with the parents and inform them about the importance of education. We also create awareness against early marriage.
You make films during vacations and with your money. What’s the subject of the next film?
It’s about a French woman who converted to Islam. She became very rigid and conservative. The story struck me because I have grown up in the same tradition and have been fighting all my life for freedom. But she is just the opposite.
Your family was against you when you divorced. Has the perception of your family members and the neighbours changed now that you are educated and famous?
Earlier, I was the worst example and people pointed fingers at me. They told their daughters not to be like me. I got a divorce and was working. I refused to wear the veil. I refused to listen to all those dictates. But now, I am the best example. So, it took time but finally things have changed for the better.