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The Mulberry House    cover image

The Mulberry House 2013


Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Diana El Jeiroudi and Mostafa Youssef
Directed by Sara Ishaq
DVD, color, 65 min., Arabic with English subtitles

High School - General Adult
Arab Spring, Family Relations, Human Rights, Social Movements, Women’s Rights

Date Entered: 05/05/2016

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

At first glance, The Mulberry House is an intimate yet uncomplicated film; it provides viewers with an up-close look at the domestic side of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, zeroing in on the reactions of the filmmaker’s family. Upon further study, it reveals the universality of family tensions with regard to gender roles and cross-cultural differences. Filmmaker Sara Ishaq is a bicultural young woman, with a Scottish mother and Yemeni father who are now divorced. She left Yemen for Scotland at the age of 17, ten years prior to 2011. As the film opens, she happens to be visiting her father in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, when the movement erupts in reaction to Ari Saleh’s authoritarian rule. She arrives in Yemen on February 19, 2011, and the protests begin the next day. She had planned to stay only a few weeks, long enough to make a short film about her family and the challenges of a dual-culture identity. Instead she stays several months and makes two films: the subject of this review, The Mulberry House, and the Oscar-nominated film Karama Has No Walls (documenting the Karama massacre of March 18, 2011, during which Yemeni security forces killed over 40 protesters and injured hundreds more).

The Mulberry House opens with footage of a lively conversation among extended family members about women’s roles; the general consensus seems to be an affirmation of the necessity for women to be more modest than men, a double standard of behavior. Yet this is a family with an obvious progressive streak; issues are debated and there is evidence of openness and a healthy ability to change. They protest the lack of proper constitutional process for their imprisoned cousin Waleed and use social media to drum up public support. Sara’s camera catches the family patriarchs in behavior that is nurturing and doesn’t strictly follow gender norms: her father serves water at the family dinner table and cooks a meal for protesters; her grandfather shops for groceries and cleans the fish tank. There is a revealing conversation between the father and Sara’s younger sister in which Sara’s feminism is mocked (she is called “controlling” and teased as desperately in need of a dowry). Sara has to remind her father that he had encouraged an arranged marriage for her at age 15; by contrast, he is now more liberal in his treatment of the younger sibling.

The public sphere intrudes into the “Mulberry House” as the social unrest continues. Sara documents the agonized reactions of the family to the escalation of violence in the protests in Sanaa’s Change Square. At the same time, the tension regarding gender roles becomes heightened on the home front. In order to film the fast-moving events, Sara needs freedom of movement; she must leave the house unescorted and put herself at some risk. Her relatives balk at this and try to limit her activities. Much of this restriction is gender-specific, criticizing her dress code, cautioning her not to mix with men in the street, and fearing for ruin of her reputation. Sara chafes at these stringent gender role requirements. Just as the Arab Spring protesters demand change in the public square, Sara negotiates for changes at home. Her grandfather and father try to keep her home, giving her a curfew. Eventually her father relents, and admits he is proud of her courageous filmmaking. His attitude is more progressive than that of his father, to whom he often defers.

The film’s titular mulberry tree provides an apt metaphor for Sara’s quest to resolve her feminism with the paternal side of her family. Mulberry trees can be found on many continents, all over the world, and likewise, Sara is wide-ranging, both western and eastern in her cultural background. And according to botanists, mulberries sometimes change from one sex to the other; so, like Sara, they push the boundaries. At the end of the film, a young girl (possibly a younger Sara or another female relative) climbs the mulberry tree and monkey-bars at the Mulberry House, boosted by her father. The film affirms that social unrest occurs in both the public square and on the home front. It arises from the paradoxically opposing impulses within us; some urge us toward liberation, freedom, and independence, but others impel us toward security, protection, approval-seeking, and family ties. The film ends happily, yet realistically. The family celebrates the liberation of Waleed from political prison, but Sara is still arguing with her grandfather about the relative modesty of her headscarf. The film beautifully demonstrates that we all need and can potentially live in a world in which safety, democracy, and love flourish on political and personal levels. It leaves the viewer hungering for more; perhaps the inclusion of some Scottish, matriarchal footage would have painted a fuller picture. The film is appropriate for a wide swath of social sciences and behavioral sciences, including anthropology, family studies, gender studies, Middle Eastern studies, political science, and sociology.