The Mulberry House, which was screened over the weekend as part of the Barbican's "I/Eye in Conflict" film series, is an intimate account of daily life for the film maker Sara Ishaq's family during a tumultuous time in their immediate surroundings. It is 2011 in Sana'a, Yemen and protestors have poured onto the streets to demand an end to the 33 year regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's now ex-president. Sara films the everyday activities of the household during these tense and testing days, capturing ordinary family life as political turmoil and revolution slowly seeps into it.
The documentary is also a personal memoir of return. After Sara's parent's divorce, her Scottish mother moves back to Scotland and she remains in Yemen with her father. As a teenager, Sara becomes disillusioned with the life Yemen has to offer her and decides to join her mother in Scotland. Ten years later, she returns to Yemen armed with a camera and a plan to document her aging grandfather for a university project. Sara's arrival happens to coincide with the uprising in Yemen and through her engagement with the events, her return to Yemen becomes not just a visit but a return and reconnection to her Yemeni roots.
Her transition from an outsider into an active participant of the family and the Yemeni struggle is reflected in the documentary. During early scenes, Sara remains out of the camera's view, gradually becoming more visible as she becomes more involved with what is happening around her. Speaking at a Q + A session following the screening, she said: "In the beginning I was very, very distant …I tried to observe them (her family) as subjects that I wasn't that directly linked to." She added: "As I moved though my footage I realised I was becoming more and more part of it……it almost reflected my connection with Yemen also….My reluctance subsided and I suddenly felt like I was carried away."
Sara's father and grandfather are central figures in the documentary. At first, her efforts to document the events are greeted with anxiety by both. They seem much more interested in Sara following one of the more traditional routes for Yemeni woman. Her father says: "One of the revolution's achievements will be that Sara finds a husband." As the documentary progresses, perhaps reflecting the change in Yemeni social fabric as a result of the uprising, anxiety is replaced by pride. The response she receives from all family members with regard to her constant filming also shifts- moving from something that makes them feel uncomfortable to an accepted part of everyday life. People begin to express themselves more openly and we watch as the household becomes infected with the revolutionary zeal of the protestors, drawing in all generations.
As Yemen's revolution was far less publicized than the other uprisings in the Arab Spring, it would have been beneficial to the audience to have a little more background on the events covered in The Mulberry Tree. At times it also feels like the director focuses too much on her father's recognition of her achievements- it begins to appear slightly ego-centric and obscures some of the key moments in the documentary. However, Sara gives us a rare glimpse into ordinary family life at a crucial point in Yemen's history. The conversations and interactions she records between family members touch on the seriousness of the situation outside but are peppered with love, humour and familial warmth in a way that somehow manages to close the gap between Yemen and the audience. The way she shoots the documentary works to emphasise this intimacy.
The film ends with Sara's return to Yemen sometime after Saleh has been overthrown. Sadly, we see that the hopes for the uprising have not been realised. This disappointment feels particularly poignant given the current situation in Yemen- a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing areas which have been captured by the Houthi rebel group over the past year.