DUBAI: Khadar Ayderus Ahmed was at his nephew’s funeral when the idea came to him. In the wake of that tragedy, the Finnish-Somali director had spent a torturous week between hospitals and cemeteries, searching for imams in Finland who could put his young loved one to rest.
As they said their final goodbyes, Ahmed’s brother reminded him of how different things had been back in Somalia when they were children, where gravediggers sit day and night outside the hospital, ready to do the job at a moment’s notice. It’s an image that wouldn’t leave his head that night as he went to sleep, and it’s an image that he quickly turned into a script entitled “The Gravedigger’s Wife.”
“That character wouldn’t leave me alone,” Ahmed tells Arab News. “At home, at work, that character was in my head, helping me to tell his story. I couldn’t get him out until I locked myself in a room, didn’t talk to anyone, and came back out two weeks later with the first draft complete.”
10 years later, Ahmed’s passion project, filmed entirely in Djibouti, has made history. The film, which has received rave reviews since its debut at Cannes, just became the first Somali-language feature to get a global theatrical release, having already become the first Somali film submitted to the Academy Awards.
It’s a humbling moment for Ahmed, who wonders quietly to himself how a refugee in Finland because the first Somali to break that ground, despite a two million-strong Somali diaspora scattered across the globe, most in countries with seemingly far more opportunities for aspiring storytellers than the small Nordic nation in which he and his family settled when he was 16.
“I think that in a way, everything happened for a reason. It’s such a blessing,” Ahmed says.
He believes he owes his voice as a filmmaker both to his home country and his adopted one.
“I grew up in a storytelling nation, full of oral storytellers and poets. As I heard so many tell their tales, I started making up my own for my friends, creating intricate fantasies in my head. The first movies I was introduced to were Bollywood films that showed on TV with no subtitles or dubbing. I would sit there for seven hours a day having no understanding of what was being said but taking in so much from the visuals, creating the story in my head and telling it back to my friends later,” says Ahmed.
Being 16 years old is hard enough, managing the often-overwhelming transition into manhood. Doing that as a refugee in a foreign nation, going from “Africa, where everything is colorful, loud, and crazy to a small city in the North Atlantic that was so distant, so quiet, so cold and so white, was a huge culture shock,” says Ahmed.
“I felt a real emptiness moving from Africa to Europe, I had left everything behind. I didn’t know what to do, so I sought refuge in movies. I would go early in the morning where there were only a few other older people there, look up at a huge screen and immerse myself in a different world for an hour and a half. That was my way of filling the void,” he continues.
Ahmed knew he wanted to be a storyteller, but for years he thought that meant becoming a writer. And while he succeeded at getting the films he wrote made, he wasn’t satisfied with how Finnish directors were interpreting his work.
“It made me feel really bad. I was witnessing my scripts getting destroyed right before my eyes. You don’t know if someone is going to understand, and that was especially clear to me with ‘The Gravedigger’s Wife.’ A white Finnish director could never tell this story as a Somali would, because it would be from an outsider’s perspective. I knew then that I had to direct my own film,” he explains.
For the next several years, Ahmed cut his teeth as a director, helming a number of shorts before he was finally able to make “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” a script he had completed in 2012. While had had amassed a team of trusted collaborators who were willing to follow him all the way from Finland to the Horn of Africa, he and the team arrived in Djibouti only a month before the start of filming, and with only two cast members confirmed. As the country has no filmmaking infrastructure to speak of, there was no casting director he could call.
“I had no choice but to just go out into the streets and chase after people — literally. Luckily, I had a good friend, Fardouza (Moussa Egueh) with me, a local who ended up playing the doctor in the film. I couldn’t just walk up to a woman in the streets, so she would go up to them on my behalf. The men I would approach myself,” says Ahmed.
“We found pretty much (the whole cast) on the streets or in the mall. One girl was a cashier at the supermarket close to the hotel in which we were staying. I couldn’t give some of them the script because some read and write only in French. I had to stay so confident, and lean on the experience of my crew, to get all these people to believe in, understand, and execute our vision,” he continues.
This somewhat ramshackle method of casting actually paid dividends. Ahmed says he also drew inspiration from his group of first-time actors. In one of the film’s best moments, one gravedigger tells the others a joke, a fable about a group of rats wondering how they might protect themselves from a local cat. The clever rat says they could put a bell on the cat, and the other rats agree. Then, the “stupidest” rat ruins it all by asking, who’s going to put the bell on the cat? It’s a story that entirely came from the actor himself on set — and Ahmed marvels at how well it suits the film’s themes.
“Ultimately, this film is about the lengths that one man will go to to save the one he loves — in this case a gravedigger saving his wife, even if he knows it means sacrificing his own safety to do so. And while that could be heavy, dark and depressing, I wanted it to feel like a fable, and be full of humor, irony and heart — just like that joke,” says Ahmed.
As “The Gravedigger’s Wife” resonates with audiences across the world, Ahmed is satisfied that he has found his voice as a storyteller, both on the page and behind the camera, and is ready to debut his next film — a short entitled “Night Stop” — in competition at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah next month, before he embarks on his next feature, a comedy set in Africa.
“In everything, I will continue to tackle heavy themes and difficult subjects, but I want my films to continue to have a little bit of everything — humor, intimacy, love, adventure and action,” he says. “It’s what we go through on a daily basis, and that should be represented all at once on screen, just as it is in life.”