Dispatch from Berlinale 2023: Abortion Drama Al Murhaqoon Offers A Rare Glimpse of Life in Yemen

Gayle Sequeira brings you the best from one of the most prestigious festivals in the circuit — the Berlin International Film Festival
Dispatch from Berlinale 2023: Abortion Drama Al Murhaqoon Offers A Rare Glimpse of Life in Yemen

An empathetic new addition to recent abortion dramas such as Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) and Happening (2021), Al Murhaqoon is set in a world where empathy seems to be in short supply. It’s 2019 in the Yemeni city of Aden, and married couple Ahmed (Khaled Hamdan) and Isra’a (Abeer Mohammed) simply cannot afford to have a fourth child. Yet of all the people who hear them out, no one seems to actually listen. “Calm down and pray to God,” is a recurring refrain, though there’s no indication he’s been listening to them either. 

Perhaps this is why director Amr Gamal shoots every scene in a single, unbroken take, nudging the audience to really see this couple and their dire straits, after several rounds of their concerns being dismissed. Scenes of everyday domesticity contain glimpses of the brutal economic climate. Grocery shopping becomes an excursion into the limits of the couple’s pockets. The driver’s seat of Ahmed’s bus becomes a vantage point offering a grim view into how many of his passengers can actually afford the trip. The act of preparing dinner becomes a race against time before yet another power cut. Couched in the exasperated expressions of parenthood, and gentle denials of sweets and toys, is the language of financial stress. 

Dispatch from Berlinale 2023: Abortion Drama Al Murhaqoon Offers A Rare Glimpse of Life in Yemen
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Ahmed is blunt in his insistence that Isra’a have an abortion. She’s still parsing the nuances of her faith, wondering if God would forgive her for getting one. Their differing attitudes are viewed as a result of complex moral quandaries. Larger philosophical questions become nagging personal worries. What do these people owe to the children they’ve already brought into this world? Is the death of one child the only way they can afford a better standard of living for the other three? The prices of various items they purchase are highlighted at various points during the film, the most crushing instance of which is the eventual abortion itself. Even the procedure, the mental and physical costs of which weigh heavily on the couple by the time they decide to go through with it, comes with its own price tag. Isra’a’s friend, Dr. Muna (Samah Alamrani), has her own ethical conflicts. She’s caught between what she sees as murdering a child, or letting her friend die, bleeding out to some medical practitioners with fewer scruples.

Between the drab interiors of the couple’s apartment, the crumbling walls of the new one they’ve been forced to move into and the antiseptic glare of the hospital, Gamal accords smaller moments a larger significance by simply lingering on them. Through his camera, the distance between two people simply sharing a ride home feels insurmountable. When he does zoom out, it’s to contrast the urban decay of a country caught in a civil war with the pristine natural beauty around it. His empathetic gaze is also evident in what he chooses to conceal. For a scene in which Isra’a attempts to have two doctors perform an abortion on her at home, the camera stays outside the doorway, granting her privacy. He’s also attuned to what children of that age see and internalise. In one scene, they linger, unsure, at the edges of the frame in the next room as their parents fight. A sense of despair permeates the film even as it ends — for all its talk of death, it’s life in Yemen that’s devastatingly hard.

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