Yousef Assabahi: A Step Closer to Hollywood

Esra’ AlNaggar

Note: This piece is NOT political; our focus is not to feature the genre of the films, but rather to shed the light on the aspiring Yemeni director and filmmaker, Yousef  Assabahi.   

“I want to write stories that narrate human experiences. I want the world to know stories about Yemen, our culture, our folklores, our music, our dances, our love and hate stories, our fights and kisses, our hugs and bullets… I want to explore complex Yemeni stories, with all the good and bad in it.”  

Who of us wouldn’t jump at the idea of going to the cinema to watch a newly released film? Who wouldn’t enjoy a movie night with a couple of friends or a family member? Who wouldn’t want to leave the world at bay and indulge in the mysteries of a very good movie? I know I would.  

We often enjoy romances, thrillers, action films, or even short documentaries that reveal that piece of information we would have never come across otherwise, but how often do we reflect on the hardships and pains that the people behind the camera go through to produce the perfection displayed on screen?  

In a time when movies are highly associated with American, European, and Egyptian production and studios, Yousef  Assabahi  makes us believe that Yemen, too, stands a chance.   

Born to a writer in Ibb – Yemen in 1995, Yousef grew up in an atmosphere of art and storytelling. As a child, he was deeply involved in the complexities behind the stories his father wrote and narrated. His grandfather, whose profession, as a member of the Parliament, helped further expose Yousef to stories from people of classes – upper and lower – as they regularly visited their house.  

The accumulation of his writing and reading experiences helped him realize at a young age that writing was to become his future career—whether writing books or something else he did not know until the Yemeni Revolution of 2011.  Assabahi was one of the youth who joined the revolution squares in hopes of building a New Yemen, where the needy and disadvantaged had a better chance at life. The Change Square was a world of diversity. People from different social backgrounds, different political parties, and different communities were all gathered for a single cause. Yousef dived in their stories and given the fact that he was very interested in human behavior, he was intrigued and observant of how people coming from different places acted and reacted differently. He mingled and participated, actively, in the squares, covering events and news for different media. The time he spent at the squares and the events he has witnessed made investigative journalism an appealing dream.  

Leaving Yemen behind, Yousef moved to the US in 2013 to take a different route in life. He saw in “filmmaking and directing” an umbrella under which he could place all the things he wanted to be. His films may investigate, as well as explore the human condition and psychology through the emotions and mindsets of their characters. Most importantly, Yousef would get to tell stories! Assabahi graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles in 2018, where he majored in Film and TV Production with an emphasis on directing.  

Yousef’s A Patriot Act  

He started writing A Patriot Act in 2017, a short film that is currently being developed into a TV series. The film’s main purpose was to be sent to festivals so that filmmakers, producers and financiers could have an idea of what the project would look like.   

The film is a criticism of America’s Intelligence and its foreign policy. Tackling a sensitive political issue had without a doubt concerned Yousef about his own safety. But, given the fact that he was in America, a country that granted its citizens so much freedom and allowed them to speak their minds even if the country itself were the subject of their criticism, had calmed his fears. “I would’ve never been able to tell such a story if I were in Yemen or a country in the Middle East. Here, we are protected by our right to the freedom of speech,” said Assabahi . 

Yousef on Set

Into the Film 

The plot of A Patriot Act revolves around two main characters. It tells the story of Saleem, who won the green card lottery and came from Yemen to the States in 2003, and Hamada, an illegal immigrant, who left Yemen for the States in the 90s, haunted by his illegal status. As the events build up, Hamada is recruited by the FBI to become an informant and Saleem’s house in Yemen is bombed by a drone. Saleem grieves over his dead brother, while Hamada is troubled by the fact that he has to work for the FBI in order to infiltrate his own community. The story explore the characters and how they deal with the situations they find themselves trapped in.   

The name was inspired by the Patriot Act, itself–a piece of legislation that the American Congress passed after the events that took place on 9/11. It is a law that gives law enforcement huge authority to do things that were not legal previously (i.e. surveillance). The film is also a commentary on the concept of patriotism and how we define it.  

Behind the Screens  

“The hardest part is working on the idea, because ideas come raw; you have to do the cooking and that’s a lot of research!”  When writing A Patriot Act,  Assabahi  had to do a lot of research and reading on the subject. He had to read about American Intelligence and the country’s history in order to best tackle the plot, which is based on the FBI and its tactics.  

Yousef explains that creating a film takes a lot of effort and patience, especially as the director. Being a recent graduate, himself–along with his staff–makes the whole project even more challenging, as they are still inexperienced. 

“Filmmaking in its essence is a collaboration and you cannot do it by yourself. You’ll need someone, who is good with cinematography, to help you realize your visions as a director, plus a costume designer to play with colors and succeed in producing the effect you want. A good production crew that is capable of creating the location that the director has set in his mind.”  

Yousef would write the draft and send it to his producer, who in turn would send it back along with his notes. Thus, the main script of A Patriot Act was not ready until mid-October, which was when they started working on the production. Auditions take a lot of time, as Yousef has to see different actors perform and decide who best suited his characters.  The costumes and production designs posed a great challenge, as the film displays a consistent color palette, the blues, browns, and greens that contribute to the story. The interrogation room, for instance, was painted brown, the color that Hamada, too, was dressed in– an attempt to reflect that he is merging with the FBI, gradually becoming one of them. One major obstacle that the team faced during the production was not being able to find an apartment with blue and brown walls and so both had to be built from scratch.  

A Patriot Act was not merely filmed for entertainment. Yousef hopes to convey both a political and a moral message through his project.  The former states that America’s trying to fight terror also creates it at the same time. The latter presents a debate on whether we as human beings really enjoy “free will” or if—in the end—we are just victims of fate. It explores many questions. Who do we want to be? Who are we, really? Who do we want to become?  

Being behind the screen is, as fun as it may be, quite draining. Yousef, however, is passionate about it–the entire process, the thing that helps him overcome the obstacles and focuses on how to best direct and produce the project at hand. He says it takes a lot of effort, like they say in Hollywood, there is no in between in filmmaking: you either love it or you hate it, because if you do not love it then it will drain and you will eventually give up.  

Yousef is currently working on his second film named Landmined, a story that explores how two enemies – Omar and Ali – manage through a new friendship. Inspired by reality, the film highlights the deadly risks that the people of Taiz – a Yemeni governorate – have to go through, as they pass the hundreds of landmines, for the purpose of smuggling food and water. The film, basically, explores the paranoia and traumas that the war has caused for these two young men and how they dealt with it. Through this film, Yousef tries to depict the struggles people in a warzone face; he also wants to draw attention to the haunting fear of stepping on a landmine that can in a matter of seconds paralyze you or worse–shatter you into pieces.  

Yousef Assabahi, aged 24, hopes to grow as a storyteller, as well as a human being. He aspires to write stories that reflect our reality and how we, as human beings, live and interact; not only in Yemen, but the world at large. “I hope to provide a critical look that strikes change and drives us to become better people.  We tell stories to remind ourselves of our humanity of who we are and what we aspire to do.” 

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