Director Mariam Al-Dhubhani and producer Mohammed Al-Jaberi have taken home the IDFA Spotlight Award for their project Let’s Play Soldiers, part of the Documentary Work in Progress track at Beirut Cinema Platform. Pitched as a powerful coming-of-age film on Nasser, a child soldier in Yemen, the project has been hailed for its sensitive approach as it seeks to reclaim representation of Yemenis. Winning the award has secured travel and stay at IDFA 2022 for the director, and festival accreditation, a professional consultancy, and participation in the online sessions of IDFA Project Space for both the director and producer.
“Nasser's story provides an exceptional example of the impact of the war on a child soldier who has been rebelling around the forced social tendencies which forced him to grow too fast. He witnessed how being a child soldier is damaging to his family and refused to allow his two younger brothers to leave school and pick up arms,” Al-Dhubhani says.
“Over the past two years, we have followed Nasser through his coming-of-age tale, where he has knocked on all available doors to fulfill his quest to break the child soldier curse that has taken two generations in his family.”
The director explains that the idea for the film first came to her in 2019, when she resolved to counter the dominant narrative of Yemeni children who are engaged in the country’s ongoing war. “The stereotypical Hollywood image of a child in such an environment is in an oversized uniform with a gun that is larger than their figure. They are portrayed as killing machines in the making,” she says.
“I believe that there is much depth to the unfortunate phenomena in Yemen where young boys have rationalized and adopted an understanding of their involvement and their newly shaped identities that are constructed around their newly acquired knowledge of sudden adulthood.”
With plans to wrap shooting in Yemen in August, Al-Dhubhani and Al-Jaberi are currently working on their first rough cut—a milestone in a lengthy filmmaking journey that spanned many years and kilometers. Al Dhubhani remembers searching for the right character in five different regions of Yemen, including where Al-Qaeda remains active. Despite the high safety stakes, it was here that they ultimately found Nasser, their protagonist.
“We approached 40 different individuals, and Nasser was the last person we met. His charisma and willingness to tell his story were uncanny and made us realize that he was the one,” she says.
Challenges continued throughout shooting—Al Dhubhani cites the difficulties of traveling with production equipment, pointing a camera in the middle of “a small village in a war-torn country,” and being a female filmmaker in a public sphere that has been deemed male-exclusive. Still, their perseverance has already shown itself in the work-in-progress edit.
IDFA Senior Programmer Joost Daamen, who handed out the award, says: “Let’s Play Soldiers is a conceptually rounded film in which the filmmakers manage to capture the past, present, and future of a country within the life of one family. With great access to the protagonists and a sensitive approach, the filmmakers seem to be in control of every aspect of the process. They know why they want to make this film and know in which direction they want to develop it further.”
Al Dhubhani adds: “Despite the challenges, we are very committed to bringing Nasser's story to the world as part of our effort to regain representation of Yemenis, who have been strictly portrayed as victims in ‘the worst manmade humanitarian crisis.’ As Yemeni filmmakers, Let's Play Soldiers is our attempt to bring to the world a war that has been frequently marginalized by trending news cycles and overshadowed by ‘more relevant crises’ around the globe.”
See where the next IDFA Spotlight Award will be handed out here.