Sara Ishaq is an Oscar and BAFTA nominated Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker, born in Scotland and raised in Yemen. She pursued a higher education in Scotland first with an MA General in Humanities & Social Sciences (with a focus on Politics, Religion & International Law) at the University of Edinburgh (2007) and later, a Film Directing diploma from the London Academy of Radio, Film and TV, followed by an MFA in Film Directing at the Edinburgh College of Art, UoE (2012). In between, she trained as a yoga teacher in Nasik, India. We appreciate the time and effort Sara spent on answering The Elixir’s 30 questions, scroll down and get to know Sara a little bit more.
1.Who is Sara Ishaq?
I was born in Scotland, grew up in Sana’a and I’m the eldest of 10 siblings. At university in Scotland, I studied Humanities and Social Sciences with a focus on Politics and International Law, and then later studied film directing. Before I embraced filmmaking fully, I spent time volunteering in Palestine and studied yoga in India. In the last 10 years alone I’ve lived in Edinburgh, Sana’a, Nablus, Cairo, Berlin and now I’ve finally settled in Amsterdam with my son and Dutch husband.
2) How did Being of a Yemeni – Scottish origin influence your life?
Yemen and Scotland resemble each other in many ways – their people are generally kind ‘highland folk’ whose men traditionally wear skirts and daggers (funnily enough); they both posses rich histories and deep-rooted tribal cultures, and both had their fair share of civil wars and struggles against imperialism. Despite these similarities, however, it still felt like I came from two polar opposite worlds. I think being exposed to them growing up, especially before the internet was prevalent in our lives, I always felt the need to explain to family and friends how “normal” life was on the other side. This need to ‘bridge the gap’ between my two worlds definitely broadened my world-view from a very young age, which I think still influences my work and life every day.
3) What is your earliest memory of Yemen?
My earliest memory in Yemen is of playing with my cousins in my mom’s Montessori pre-school which she had established in our Sana’a home in 1986 – I was two.
4) What is one Yemeni thing/ tradition/ food you wish you could take with you to Amsterdam?
Every time I visit Yemen, I usually leave with bags of coffee and spices to ensure I have a piece of home with me wherever I go, but one thing I can’t take with me is the smell of Sana’a’s air after rainfall. Nothing quite beats that.
5) What is your favourite movie? And why?
When I was a kid, I loved Bugsy Malone. I watched and rewatched the final scene where the fighting gangs resolve their dispute with song. A classic. I often wish we could simply sing a song in Yemen and miraculously put an end to all misery. As an adult, the list of favourites is endless, but if I had to choose one it would be La vita è bella.
6) What’s the most interesting thing you have read lately?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
7) Sara’s idea of a perfect day.
A day with family and friends cooking delicious food together with good weather, or a quiet day at home enjoying quality time with my husband and son.
8) What inspires you?
Being in nature. Being surrounded by art and live music. Experiencing acts of human kindness or social connectedness. The beauty of nature, awe-inspiring creativity and love always keep me stimulated and inspired.
9) If you had a chance for a “do-over” in life what is one thing you would do differently?
I think my life turned out exactly the way it should have, so I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d maybe alter my approach to some situations and my relationships with some people. Over the years I have come to the very concrete conclusion that nothing is more important than living with peace of mind and relationships based on mutual respect and trust, otherwise they are generally not worth investing time or energy in.
10) One teacher or mentor who had an impact on the person you have become?
My father. As a child he always told me “there’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’ ”, and since then this has been my life’s mantra, both personally and professionally.
11) If given a one-way ticket, where would you go and why?
I would politely decline it. I have too many loved ones in too many countries, so a one-way ticket anywhere would be a life-sentence away from too many people I care about.
12) A moment that defined you.
I cannot highlight a single moment. I believe that from the moment we are born, we are constantly being defined and redefined by every good and bad experience and relationship we encounter, and every internal/external reaction we have to that experience. Our present moment is a sum total of all of those defining moments before.
13) If your life was made into a film of your own creation, what would you call the film?
My mother always said that if she could write a book about me, she would call it Wanderlust, so perhaps she was on to something. The soundtrack would definitely be Bon Iver’s Re:Stacks.
14) From your own perspective, define Success.
Success is being content with whatever I do, very far from material or superficial measures of the word. I feel ‘successful’ when I know that I have done something to the best of my capacity and achieved it with love, joy and dignity, whether that be in personal relationships, work or life in general.
15) If you could witness an event past, present or future, what would it be?
The reign of Queen Balquis of Sheba. I’m sure we could have made some pretty interesting changes for Yemen’s future together by establishing a pacifist matriarchy to rule Yemen for a few thousand years.
16) What made you pursue filmmaking?
Given my mixed background and education in social sciences, I guess I’ve always been fascinated by how we as humans exist and co-exist in the world. I always felt a responsibility to shed light on the things that bring us closer, rather than the things that separate us. I believe film is the most powerful medium through which that can be done.
17) Tell us about the first movie you directed.
The first film I directed was a short documentary about a young terminally ill man called Steve who found meaning in his life through painting. I remember being very moved by his story. The film was screened during one of his art exhibitions in London.
18) What is one thing you love the most about directing?
Meeting incredible people with remarkable stories in the most interesting of places. For me, film directing has definitely been a way into the lives of people, places and events I may never have encountered otherwise, and has in turn enriched my life beyond words.
19) What do you consider to be your career highlight?
Teaching filmmaking in Yemen, hands down. Nothing makes what I do more worthwhile than sharing my experience and knowledge with passionate and charismatic new filmmakers in Yemen who in turn go on to have careers of their own.
20) If you could work with an international director, who would that be?
I don’t have a preference. I’ve always found working with directors most different to me in style and approach to be the best people to learn from.
21) Would you ever star in one of your own films?
No, I hate being in front of the camera. My place will always be behind it.
22) Between Karama Has No Walls and The Mulberry House which one is your favourite, and why?
Both were difficult, emotionally charged films to make under very complicated political and/or social circumstances. The Mulberry House, however, will always have the most special place in my heart as it captures one of the most positive moments my family and I experienced in Yemen’s modern history. It also features my late grandfather who was my idol. This film will preserve some of the most precious moments I’ve ever had with him.
23) What inspired the idea of Karama Has No Walls?
The massacre on the Friday of Dignity (Karama), March 18 th 2011 in Sana’a’s Change Square. I was in the square in the weeks leading up to this horrific event, and saw first-hand how peaceful the demonstrations were. After the brutal massacre, I was shocked at the response of many regular Yemeni citizens who blamed the youth in the square, claiming they had instigated the violence. It quickly became my mission to prevent the rewriting of history and save a body of evidence that could one day provide justice for the victims of the massacre.
24) One challenge you faced while shooting Karama Has No Walls.
Tracking down the cameramen who filmed the main bulk of the archival footage of the attacks to record their first-hand testimonies on how the events unfolded. Many people uploaded videos on their personal YouTube channels and claimed that they had filmed them. After a few weeks of searching, my team and I finally managed to find the two cameramen we were looking for.
25) What was it like to have one of your films nominated for the Oscars, the first nomination for Yemen?
Initially it was a complete shock. The nomination happened after the film won an award at a qualifying festival, but I was unaware that it had qualified. When I received the email from the Academy, I sent it to my spam box. Ultimately, the fact that the film received such recognition felt like a remarkable achievement for my team and I, especially since Yemen wasn’t getting any media coverage at the time, and especially for such an important subject.
26) Describe being in the Oscars.
The event itself was disillusioning. I must admit that being there was lost in me – I have never been interested in celebrity culture and only ever watched the Oscars once in my life as a teenager. In making Karama Has No Walls, the intention was never to make a commercial film or win awards or certainly get any recognition from Hollywood – those things happened as a byproduct of our initial goal. The intention was to reveal facts, demand justice, raise awareness and be the voice of victims of an atrocity. Within this context, it was quite surreal to be at the Oscars where people and press were more interested in what I was wearing than the message of our film. Ultimately, it gave Karama Has No Walls an opportunity to be internationally recognized and screened, and that’s all that matters.
27) What’s the first thing you teach trainees at the Comra Documentary Camp?
One of the first things I highlight is not to underestimate the importance of building a film crew they trust and gel with from the get-go, and to never attempt to walk the road of filmmaking alone. Making a film is like composing a complex piece of classical music which requires a combination of instruments and talents to work together in harmony for magic to happen. If people go into the field of filmmaking without a willingness or flexibility to work with others or share credit, then it really isn’t the right field for them.
28) Do you encourage more Yemeni Youth to indulge in filmmaking?
Of course, especially during Yemen’s current situation. Almost everyone has a mobile phone camera and absolutely everyone has a story to tell. Now is the time in Yemen’s history where stories need to be told, and I encourage everyone to use whatever means available to tell them.
29) Hopes for your homeland, Yemen.
It goes without saying – an end to the war, corruption and disunity between our people.
30) Where would Sara the director be in 10 years?
Hopefully still making films, teaching filmmaking, and with a bit of luck, onto my second or third fiction film too!
Cover photo by Mohammed AlMekhlafi.