Affirmative Actions: Sally Potter on Yes

By Sally Potter and John Berger

yes-sally-potter.jpgYes, 2004

Sally Potter’s, urgent and ambitious new feature Yes seeks a common ground beyond the divisions sought and often imposed by power. Here she reveals how and why the film came to be made, John Berger offers some thoughts on its relevance; and overleaf we publish exclusive extracts from the screenplay.

I started writing Yes in the days following the attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York.

I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against America. I asked myself the question: what can a filmmaker do in such an atmosphere? What are the stories that need to be told? Instinctively I turned to love and to verse (and to humour). Love, because it is ultimately a stronger force than hate; and verse, because its deep rhythms and its long tradition enable ideas to be expressed in lyrical ways that might otherwise be indigestible, abstract or depersonalised; and humour, because in the face of such heavy global hysteria, the need for levity becomes stronger than ever.

So I began writing an argument between two lovers, one a man (played by Simon Akbarian) from the Middle East (the Lebanon), the other a woman (Joan Allen) from the West (an Irish/American) at a point where their love affair has become an explosive war-zone, with the differences in their backgrounds starting to overshadow them as individuals. I wanted to draw portraits that flow against the tide of cliché (particularly the stereotypes of the enemy ‘over there’ and the potential ‘enemies within’ – the exiles, immigrants and asylum-seekers living in the West (for this reason, also, the man’s religion is left deliberately ambiguous). The argument between the two lovers came out onto the page, for the most part, in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line). Perhaps my background as a lyricist made me write this way; as if the film was a song. Or perhaps it was an instinctive attempt to let the characters speak to each other on screen about things which are hard to express in normal conversation. Either way, I tried to find a form in which the characters could speak to each other from somewhere intimate and surprising in themselves.

The argument became a sequence which was then made, experimentally, as a five-minute short film. Excited by its possibilities I then decided to develop the two characters, their storyline, and the mosaic of lives around them, into a feature-length script. The invasion of Iraq began as we began rehearsals. Lines from the script became more and more pertinent, as the characters’ journey accelerated. That the film was made at all is testimony to the ingenuity of the producers, Christopher Sheppard and Andrew Fierberg, and the dedication and generosity of the cast, crew, and facility houses who invested in the film with their unpaid labour or deferred fees to make it possible. It was truly a labour of love. Everyone wanted to contribute to a ‘yes’ in the face of the destruction and despair of war.  

So, perhaps the film is about becoming naked – the human commonality beyond (behind? inside?) our cultural and political differences. It is also about the very small and the very large; from the micro world of molecular science, and the dirt observed by the character of the cleaner, to the enormity of war; the giant clash of fundamentalisms, eastern and western. And in between those two worlds – somewhere on the middle of the scale of the very small to the very large – lies the human body with its desires, frailties, strengths, and, ultimately, mortality.

From a letter on Yes, written by John Berger to Sally Potter 

Yes. A film that irrefutably deserves its title. A film of affirmation. Which is not the same as a story with a happy ending.

Its storytelling, its narration, has chosen its own method. Again and again it proceeds through glances, hints, innuendos to arrive at a dénouement, a stripping away, a nakedness. The nakednesses, to which the narration leads, are every time surprising. (As they are in life, when the one looking is attentive. Dress renders us similar, nakedness renders each of us incomparable.)

The places, the locations, are like characters, and the camera moves, all the while, around and in and through them with the same curiosity with which the cleaner examines and explains the house in which she’s working. If the places in this story become characters, what is the scene? The arena of world politics today, nothing less, is the scene – and, above it, the sky to which everyone, at one moment or other, prays.

Desire, as shown in your film, is the offer – from one body to another – of a reprieve from the persistent pain of life. When the offer is accepted and reciprocated, the reprieve and its promise covers both parties for a while.

Wounds and desire – after a certain age (or perhaps at all ages? I suddenly remember being four!) – are inseparable. The reprieve is a reminder of the grace – as distinct from the cruelty of nature. Isn’t this why love poetry in all cultures refers so often to the beauties of nature?

Excerpt from Yes


It is spring and ‘She and ‘He’ are strolling through a London park. The trees are full of blossom, the ground covered in spring flowers. There is something studiedly formal in the measured physical distance between them as they walk, as if they are keeping something under control.

Where are you from?

I’m Irish

You sound –

I know. American.
They took me there when I was ten.
And you?

I’m from Beirut

He imitates the sound of guns firing, bombs exploding. They both laugh.

‘He’ (cont’d)
…but we have trees
That blossom in the spring and then release
Their fruit. We have cherries, plums and peaches
And the queen of all, the tree that reaches
For the sun to fill its seed with gold:
The yellow fruit, the apricot. The old
And wisest say this fruit will keep them young…

He leans towards her.

‘He’ (cont’d)
And you can taste her secret with your tongue.

Their eyes meet briefly, and then she turns away.      

‘She’ (ruefully)
Look…shall we think of something sad?
This conversation is far too light

That’s bad…
Yes. Absolutely. You are right.

They smile at each other, fleetingly. And then she touches him lightly, consolingly, on the arm.


‘She’ is at the wheel of her car driving into a bleak deserted city car park. ‘He’ is sitting, immobile, in the passenger seat. The car comes to a halt and they sit in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.

‘He’ turns to her and speaks, quietly.

My body’s been in your possession. Now
I’m asking for it back. It once was mine.
But, everything I said was true. Oh, how
I’ve worshipped you. Yes, you have

She stares at him suspiciously.

I’m hearing something strange behind
Your honeyed words; I feel a doubt
So strong it’s poisoning my mind…
The bitter question must come out.

But she’s struggling.

‘She’ (cont’d)
Asking’s way beneath
me, brother
For you said there was no other
One for you. I was your secret country…
Land of all your longings…so…who is

He shakes his head and sighs.

No female body tempts me, please believe
Me when I say that I would never leave
You for another woman. Who could be
The scarlett goddess you have been for me?

He leans towards her, as if to kiss her, and she moves towards him reciprocally. But he turns away from her, coldly, at the last moment. She stares at him, uncomprehendingly.

Then she gets out of the car, furiously, and slams the door, pacing about as she tries to control herself, her overlapping thoughts and feelings spilling out into fragments of speech.

‘She’ (m'muring)
Ah, but I never asked for this
Ah, but I never asked for this
To be blinded groping for a kiss
To be blinded groping for a kiss
My mind’s on fire…
Where once my limbs coiled with desire
For you, now all I feel is hate.  

He gets out of the car and stands, silently, watching her as she walks back and forth, angrily.

‘She’ (cont’d)
I want to attack
I want to stab you fucker, in the back.
And make you feel the power of my vengeance,…
Sweet-talking man with your…hypocrite

A hypocrite? I’m not the lying kind
What can I do to purify your mind?
I need to…wash you – yes – from head to toe.

She stares at him.

What did you say?

How can you doubt me so?           

Wash me? Do you see some dirt?
Can you not see how your words hurt?                 

Divinity –

– Don’t call me that. It isn’t me.

In long afternoons I’ve felt your lovely arms
About me, tasted you, and known the charms
Of flesh on flesh, of skin on lovely skin.
But when your blood is calling it’s a sin
To –

‘She’ (inter’ting)
Now wait. Blood? Sin? What’s happening?

I have remembered who I am. The old
And wisest men explain that all the love
A woman gives distracts us. We are told
That riches wait for those who rise above
Temptation to obey a higher call.
You’re asking me to turn away, to fall
From grace…

You cannot look me in the face
And say I am your fall from grace

They stare at each other, wordlessly, for a moment. Then ‘She’ turns away and starts gesturing, angrily, as she speaks.

‘She’ (cont’d)
Do you really think that I am unclean
A second-hand cunt – a fucking machine?
A dirty distraction…somehow obscene?
Look: I’m not your only “goddess” or “queen”
I’m a twenty-first century any damn thing
That I choose; including your teacher or king!

‘He’ (shouting)
I named you goddess and queen. I crowned you.

Fuck you! Who do you think you are?           
‘He’ I draw a line;
You’re not a king! That role is mine!

Oh, sir, excuse me. I forgot
You are a son and I am not
I am a daughter, so, inferior?

It’s youyour people – feel superior.
You want to rule, you want to spoil;
You want our land,  you want our oil…
You call that civilised?
Your country is a dragon breathing flames;
Land of corporate fantasies, brand names;
Big Mac, big burger, yes, big everything.
And you, blonde American, are too thin,
Too fit. Not womanly. And then, your skin:
Too pale, insipid. And your eyes, too blue.
Why do you make me dream of you?

She stares at him, bewildered, hurt, despairing.

So, we…are at war.




They look at each other for a long silent moment

How did it come to this?
You are confusing me with them
Look, I’m not just an American
I’m Irish too

So what?
You all have roots somewhere, but have forgot
That you are anything but powerful
The big boss.

‘He’ stares at her

‘He’ (cont’d)
You hear our children’s screams but feel no loss
Because they are not yours

That isn’t fair
The things they’ve done have not been in my name.
I don ‘t feel pride. I feel a deepening shame.

‘She’ is desperate now. ‘She’ comes close to him, looks him in the eye.

‘She’ (cont’d)
Look, I’m an individual. I am me.

Me this, me that. Each one of us is we.
We’re not alone.

I know. Look, I agree.
I’m not your enemy. How did this start?

‘He’ (wearily)
From Elvis to Eminem, Warhol’s art;
I know your stories, know your songs by heart.
But do you know mine? No, every time,
I make the effort, and I learn to rhyme
In your English. And do you know a word
Of my language, even one? Have you heard
That ‘al-gebra’ was an Arabic man?
You’ve read the Bible. Have you read the Koran?

‘She’ (softly)
Is this the reason you’re rejecting me?

Rejection? No. I don’t reject
But, yes. I do demand respect.

He struggles with himself before he can continue to speak.