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On the Horns of a Dilemma

Adenium Productions

The Burdened (2023)

This is the first Yemeni movie to play at the Berlinale in the festival’s 73-year history, so for that alone “The Burdened” must be recommended. Further to that director Amr Gamal, who cowrote the script with Mazen Refaat, is clever indeed, for the topic of this movie is a hot-button issue all over the world: abortion. The reasons for which the married couple desperately need not to have another child are both incredibly specific and completely universal; and the empathy for their situation is striking. It’s only to be recommended.

Husband Ahmed (Khaled Hamdan) and wife Isra’a (Abeer Mohammed) used to be happy, but the sickening silence between them while their kids chatter in the backseat of the van makes it beautifully plain those days are gone. War has made everyday life in Aden a struggle. For starters there’s no running water anymore, and at night Ahmed must go queue for the water tank trucks the army brings around the neighborhood. They can no longer afford their nice apartment and are packing to move to a depressing and disgusting one, but they have to downsize for two reasons. Firstly, their three kids go to private school – for public schools have neither desks nor books and the teachers have been striking for months – and the fees are going up. Secondly, since the regime changed Ahmed lost his job at the television station since he will not sign the new loyalty oath. He’s owed several months’ back wages, but some people have been working for six months without their salaries paid. They are scraping by on family loans and whatever scraps Ahmed can make driving a rented van as a hack rideshare. Hacks are easily spotted since the vans go around with the sliding door open, so customers can jump in and out at will. There are still complaints whenever Ahmed tries to smoke, too.

Isra’a’s family is conservative, nicely demonstrated by the awkward family lunch where the army brother-in-law sets his loaded handgun down next to the 7-year-old. Ahmed has to ask what the hell he thinks he’s doing before he puts the gun out of reach. Isra’a says nothing, but she’s a lot brighter around Ahmed’s family, who are much more obviously open-minded, and who are cheerfully financing the procedure. If Isra’a can find anyone to do it, that is. Dr. Niveen (Fatema Abdulqawi) is an old and dear schoolfriend, but also the most visibly religious person in the film, lowering her niqab before speaking with any man. She also refused to provide an abortion to Isra’a five years ago, directly leading to the third child and their current financial trouble. She’s their best hope, but it’s a feeble one. Besides, in Yemeni hospitals procedures have to be approved by multiple doctors – some of whom require bribes – before they can go ahead. Even then patients have to buy the materials needed for the operation, luxuries such as sterile gloves, soap and bandages, before anything can proceed. On top of this, the nurses all wear pastel blue jackets and pink headscarves. It’s a dramatic look.

Ms. Mohammed is excellent as a woman on the edge who is coming to the realization that the people she relies on – her sister, her best friend, her husband – could be choosing their belief systems instead of her. Mr. Hamdan is even better as a man stretched to the limit, worried to death about whether he and his family can eat without him needing to compromise his personal beliefs, never mind his political ones. Separately and together they are at breaking point. Another child would cause everything to come tumbling down. “The Burdened” is interested in how people survive when the safety net disappears, and the people around you are making things worse instead of better. Its kindness and intuition about human nature and the way in which it uses location to reflect mood are is skills filmmakers from many other nations could stand to study.


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