A powerful film tells her story in all its complexityby Sameer Rahim / March 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
In 2008, a 10-year-old girl Yemeni girl called Nojood Ali was married by her parents to a man three times her age. For two months, she was beaten and raped by her “husband” before she managed to escape. Remarkably, she took the man to court and obtained a divorce on the grounds of her age and maltreatment. A new film that fictionalises this true story, I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced, was shown at the opening of the 18th London Asian Film Festival, earlier this month.
Not only is this an important story—there are 16 million child marriages each year round the world—it is also significant because of who is telling it. The director Khadija Al Salami is a Yemeni woman now based in France, who was herself the victim of a child marriage at the age of 11. As she told the audience during a Q&A after the screening, she had been desperate to get hold of the film rights to the book Nojood wrote after her ordeal. (Nojood has since changed her name to Nojoom—hence the film’s title. Her original name means “hidden,” while her new name means “stars.”)
An experienced documentary maker, Al Salami had not made a fictional film before now. She told us that a famous French director offered a lot of money for the rights, but that she felt she was in a better position to tell Nojoom’s story. “I was worried it would be a look from outside,” she told the audience, one that would ignore “the traditions of Yemen.” Her passion managed to convince the publisher to sell her the rights.
Just like the 2012 film Wajda, which Haifaa Al Mansour directed on the fly in her native Saudi Arabia, I Am Nojoom was made in Yemen without alerting the authorities. Al Salami didn’t even tell most of the actors what the film was about. (Child marriage is an “extremely sensitive” subject in Yemen, Al Salami said.) The only actor who knew the full story was the lead playing Nojoom, Al Salami’s niece, the precociously impressive Reham Mohammed. The scene in which she is forcibly taken to bed on her wedding night is filmed with restraint—a lamp being extinguished symbolises her physical violation—but is no less harrowing for that.