'Don't Get Too Comfortable': Shaima Al-Tamimi talks about her groundbreaking film in Venice

Shaima Al-Tamimi made history at the Venice Film Festival this year, where she presented her project -- the first film by a Yemeni filmmaker in the Orizzonti competition.
'Don't Get Too Comfortable': Shaima Al-Tamimi talks about her groundbreaking film in Venice

It is always wonderful when a film makes history. Yet when the film is from the MENA region and it is directed by a woman filmmaker, the barriers it breaks down feel double sweet. Shaima Al-Tamimi did it this year at the Venice Film Festival, when her short Don't Get Too Comfortable premiered in the Orizzonti section.

Al-Tamimi is the first Yemeni filmmaker to have been nominated in the Orizzonti competition in Venice. There, now that we have that out of the way, we can get down to business. The film's worth specifically -- which after all is what counts beyond the headlines and statistics. Don't Get Too Comfortable is a perfectly made, beautifully thought out piece of cinematic art, a jewel to behold both for its content and its themes. Through an introspective letter to her dead grandfather, Al-Tamimi questions the movements and shifts of the Yemeni diaspora, as well as her own sense of belonging. For anyone who has ever called home a place different from their actual homeland, Don't Get Too Comfortable is a must-watch. I felt tears welling up in my eyes as Al-Tamimi questioned her grandfather (and herself) about how different her life would have been had he made a different choice when he decided to settle East instead of West.

I caught up with the wondrous artist via Zoom, after the festival. In the background, the sounds of Doha, where Al-Tamimi is based and works for the Doha Film Institute, but also a howling neighborhood cat who wanted to be a part of the action. It is a conversation I'll never forget.

I just want to start with that cape you wore in Venice. Wow, and then Rihanna shows up with a nearly identical cape at the Met Gala, let's say, copying you...

It was fun living in that moment because I woke up yesterday and my friend who was based in LA had put the two pictures, my picture and Rihanna's picture side-by-side and posted about it on social media. So I woke up, I'm like -- what just happened, did I go to the Met in my dreams?

I think fashion is such an important part of our lives and I think we've been locked up for such a long time that now you know, seeing something that glamorous on social media makes one sit up in their chair. But that is a whole other conversation...

I'm also happy to kind of use that as an angle in the conversation as well, I'll give you a bit of background on what I wore. Generally I'm not someone who has the patience to go shopping. And when I do I usually make sure that it's once in a couple of months and I buy everything I need. But for this and obviously because it was Venice and it was like a historical moment for, you know, like Yemen in general, I wanted to make sure I also represented that visually. And so I worked with a talented Yemeni stylist Mona Haidar who is based in London. We couldn't find any Yemeni designers, and therefore the brief was to support Arab designers through this journey. Because I knew I would be getting some sort of press-- it's nice to play dress up but I wanted it to have a message and a meaning, it wasn't just about dressing in something nice. I'm honoured to have represented designers from Qatar (Wadha), Morrocco (Benchelal) and Palestine (Reemami).

Who is the cape by?

The cape is by a Moroccan designer, his name is Mohamed Benchellal but the name of the label is Benchellal -- and he's based in Amsterdam.

Do you feel you are representing your culture to the world with your presence in Venice?

I don't want to obviously represent the diaspora but the message is something that the diaspora will relate to. I'm not sure if you're aware of the history of Yemen, but our journey with migration started over a century ago. And so my great grandparents, for example, they were southern Yemenis who moved to East Africa. So my father grew up in Zanzibar. My mom is a third generation Yemeni who was born and raised in Kenya. And so, like there's a huge community of families who speak Swahili, just as much as there's a huge community of families who speak Indonesian and Indian. We come in big groups. And growing up I always thought that this was very odd, like it was an anomaly. But the more I started meeting people from that circle, because I just thought it was in my family, the more I met people in my circle I realized that this was something that I also wanted to contribute in spreading the knowledge of.

The idea of having a British passport, as opposed to a Yemeni one. Can you talk about this concept which you touch upon in your film?

That was my entry into talking about the weight of your citizenship in a passport form. And obviously you know passports work very differently. If you have, I'll call it a "white passport," I don't want to say your future is bright, but you have certain things cut out for you that you don't have to worry about anymore. It is unfortunate we live in a world where one's opportunities are dictated by the passport they have, and I often wonder how life would've turned out if we didn't have to live under that system of borders and passport control.

It's a theme that affects most of us, as at this point, probably 50% of us are displaced in some way or another, whether it's by choice or by circumstance. Tell me how the film came about?

So last year, I was part of the photography and social justice fellowship program with the Magnum Foundation. It's a nine month program whereby you come out of it with at least a big chunk of your work, being put together. And obviously, because of Covid-19 it all had to be online. We were originally meant to do some of it online and then do one month in New York for extra mentorship and meeting people within the industry. But obviously, ended up being stuck in between four walls, and I needed to come up with an adapted version of my project, because you at the end of the day I had to present something. And I had originally worked on phase one of this project, which was with AFAC (Arab Fund for Arts and Culture). And so this is basically part of a long term project. I don't know how I was gonna be able to shoot people, or the surroundings, because we were all locked up. So I thought okay, I've worked with archives before, what else can I do to stretch the story further? And there was this exercise that I gave myself the permission to explore,  which was to write a letter to one of my ancestors and see what thoughts would come out on paper.

I chose to write to my paternal grandfather (may he rest in peace), because my dad speaks to me about his father a lot, and I wanted to connect with him on some sort of a level. I thought okay, maybe I can start with updating him on what has been happening. I wrote and wrote and wrote and during the process itself I was crying the whole time. Then I thought, okay, let me try and read it out loud, I switched on my phone recorder and that wasn't easy because it was literally all tears and you couldn't hear anything. I did that a couple of times until I felt I had ownership of the story. I didn't want to sound like I was broken by it, I wanted to be in control. So I recorded the entire letter as a soundbyte then I felt fine and felt encourage to tell it in my own way going further. I was blessed to have my talented friend Mayar Hamdan by my side, who co-produced and edited this project with me in the craziest 12 hour difference time zone. She was my rock.

From that moment I think I could see where a few archive photos would fit and I presented that idea to my mentors -- and everyone loved it. And so from then onwards, I started putting a plan together on what I would want to do, how to shoot. I waited for the borders to reopen and I shot with my family and it was a very collaborative project in that sense, because everything you see in the film is homemade.

Obviously if you're an American filmmaker, unless you're going to the Arab world with your film, you are never really asked this question, but as you are the first Yemeni filmmaker to participate in Venice, how did that feel, how did you feel representing your whole country, your whole people there?

I don't even know if I can find like the right word but it feels heavy. In a good way and in like an anxiety kind of way, because you know at the end of the day this kind of a milestone is also a huge responsibility. I'm not here to represent everyone you know. I'm here because I want to talk about everything that we are going through as a collective. But then also, I need to keep reminding myself that, you know, I never grew up in Yemen. And that are the people who live in Yemen, go through very different trials and tribulations than the diaspora community, for sure. At the end of the day, there's this huge discrepancy between, you know what the diaspora are allowed to talk about and what the people who live on the ground can talk about.

Are you thinking of making a full feature documentary out of this story, has that thought ever crossed your mind?

I mean the thought is there. So my father, I was talking to him about the film yesterday and I've actually been very nervous about showing my father the film. And he knows that I made the film, he knows that I was working on, you know, research and archives and whatnot because we obviously talked a lot and he told me a lot of stories and stuff. But he just didn't know the context in which that all came into frame. And so yesterday I was just giving him a sort of a summary of what had happened in Venice and I said, it's time to tell you, I wrote a letter to your father -- may he rest in peace. 

And he was like, okay -- you do know that I want a feature film out of this! And this is actually something that he's been talking about for many many years. So we're also working together to at least document and archive these stories because it's important for him.

Images courtesy of the filmmaker, used with permission.

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