Guled (Omar Abdi) is a cemetery. Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) is sick. The situation of the Somali couple, who live in a popular district of the Djiboutian capital, cannot be reversed: their meager income does not allow them to treat the kidney infection that caused Nasra’s suffering. For his first feature film, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed beautifully portrays the loving tenderness shared by these heroes comprised of a noble duo of actors whose chemistry is enough to prove the love story offered to the audience. The Finnish filmmaker of Somali origin has also signed a social drama with the strength of the brevity of a fully skilled play. Presented at the world premiere of Critics’ Week in July 2021 in Cannes, The Gravedigger’s Wife has been screened at numerous festivals and won numerous awards including Etalon d’or du Yennenga in the final edition of Fespaco. It is also the first film in Somali cinema history to be submitted for the Oscars. Interview with Khadar Ayderus Ahmed |
Franceinfo Africa: you cannot attend Fespaco. Where were you when you found out you had won the Yennenga Golden Stallion, a prestigious award for African cinema?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed | : I followed the closing ceremony in Paris with friends. When the other prizes were awarded, it seemed clear to me that I had not won. When the final prize was announced, my friends were sure I had won it, while I no longer believed it. And when Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritanian filmmaker who heads the Fespaco feature-length fiction jury, editor’s note) said the film’s title, we went crazy (smiles)! I didn’t sleep that night! I was so happy to have won the Etalon d’or. I love Fespaco and it’s one of the festivals I’ve always dreamed of attending. I always follow Fespaco. I’ve also been happy since choosing the film.
Why did you decide to bring everyday life on this gravedigger and his wife are suffering from kidney infection which is difficult to treat due to lack of means?
I was inspired by an event that happened in my family. For me, it was above all a question of presenting an African love story. What I haven’t seen on the screen yet. I don’t want poverty to replace this story: it stays behind. It’s the love, dignity, compassion and gentleness that is at the forefront even as I focus on the continent’s health systems. In the West, in France for example, you are cared for by the State when you go to the hospital. But in most African countries, you have to pay everything out of your pocket to get treatment and not everyone can afford it. Many Africans died of minor illnesses because they had no money to pay hospital bills. I want to underline this through a love story.
Are gravediggers really at the gates of Djibouti hospitals like we discovered in the film?
This is the case in Djibouti but also in Somalia and Ethiopia. There were small groups of gravediggers in front of the hospitals waiting to bury the dead and get a little money for food.
How did you choose this beautiful couple designed by Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi?
As I write the screenplay, I know it’s hard to find actors who agree to play intimate scenes because Somalis are Muslims and it’s a conservative environment. Yasmine Warsame is a supermodel and she did a summer campaign for H&M a few years ago. His posters are all over Helsinki, Finland (where the director alive, letter to the Editor), and he is noble. I wanted to know who he was and know that he was a Somali. I want him to play Nasra because he is brave and he is not afraid to break the rules. I told myself that if I was to make this film, he would have to. I immediately contacted him. She read the script she loved and she replied that she had it.
For Omar, he was a longtime friend living, like me, in Helsinki. He acted in a short film that I made a few years ago. It was a natural choice for me. These two actors were my first and only choice. I can’t think of anyone but them. Yasmin is a beautiful and good actress. I want people to understand why this guy loves this woman.
As for their son Mahad, played by Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim, I discovered him in Djibouti (where the film was shot, editor’s note) two weeks before filming started. I never gave him the script because I didn’t want him to be a burden to act. So many of us improvised. I explained to him what was going to happen in the scene and I told him what to do. That was his first role in the film and I wanted him to enjoy playing it. He was a very talented kid. So I formed a family whose members came from three different continents: Yasmin from Canada in America, Omar from Finland in Europe, and Kadar from Djibouti, in Africa (laughs).
You were shot in Djibouti and not in Somalia. Does this choice have anything to do with security issues?
We shoot here in the country for a variety of reasons. The first is that Djibouti was part of Somalia (where we see Somali, a community living in East Africa) before colonization.. They speak the same language, practice the same religion and share the same culture. We also found in Djibouti all the scenery equivalent to the scenery, especially the desert. That wouldn’t have happened if we had shot in Somalia. Also for security reasons we chose Djibouti because it is one of the safest countries in the world.
Your film is a window into Somali culture. Why did you insist on letting us discover it? ?
This culture is part of mine. I also want to show the younger generation of Somalis this culture as experienced in Africa. It’s not the front that is put forward but it stays in the background of the story.
How do you manage your dual culture, Somali and Finnish, especially when it comes to the nationality of your Finnish film at Critics ’Week and becoming Somali at Fespaco ?
And in some countries it is considered an Arab film… Somalia is one of the Arab countries. It’s an African film, it’s an Arab film, it’s a Finnish film… Everything suits me (laughs)!
As a member of the diaspora, it is easier for you, even if it remains difficult, to make a film unlike a filmmaker working on the continent. As such, what can you contribute to the growth of the continent’s film industry?
The outside perspective makes it possible to approach a situation from another perspective. When we were in Djibouti, people approached us to ask what we were doing. I told them I was making a movie about a gravedigger and they were amazed. Gravediggers are part of society but they are considered subhuman. It is my responsibility, as a filmmaker, to highlight these people who are dehumanized or who are ignored when they are part of society and carry a lot of it.
Many Djiboutians do not realize the importance of these gravediggers. I consider it my responsibility to hear their voices, as well as share their stories. It is the advantage of this African diaspora to create a different perspective. I came to Finland when I was 16 and I always come back to Somalia. Honestly, I don’t consider myself part of the African diaspora but an African filmmaker who speaks to the continent from within.
Have you seen your film in Djibouti ? How did it feel to film his film in Somalia, a country in crisis since 1991 ?
Yes, and it was warmly received by audiences in both countries. Viewers find themselves in these characters because they know people who have gone through the hardships depicted in the film, having a hard time finding money to take care of their loved ones.
In Somalia, after the civil war, cinemas were closed. There is one in the capital Mogadishu, but it is closed. Terrorist groups make it their headquarters. Now, the situation has improved and the cinema has reopened. In November 2021, my film was the first feature film to be screened in Somalia since the civil war.
Gravedigger’s Wife, by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed
With Omar Abdi, Yasmin Warsame and Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim
French Release: April 27, 2022