‘I wanted this film to be 100% Somali’: the fight to make The Gravedigger’s Wife

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“I am Somali and I made this film for Somali people to watch a film in their mother tongue without needing subtitles,” says film director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed. Ahmed made his feature debut with The Gravedigger’s Wife, and after premiering in May at the Cannes film festival’s Critics’ Week,  it made headlines  as the first film from Somalia to be put forward for the Oscars.

“As a film-maker, I felt a sense of responsibility to tell the story of how I view my Somali community and to tell this story with dignity, tenderness and compassion – all the qualities I’ve been raised with,” says Ahmed, who was born in Somalia  before moving to Finland as a teenager.

The Gravedigger’s Wife is a love story, set in Djibouti, following Guled (Omar Abdi) whose job is to wait outside hospitals to bury new corpses. His wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) is in desperate need of an operation for her kidney infection. Guled and his son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim), figure out a way to find the money to pay for her operation – the irony being that Guled is eagerly waiting for the deaths of others in order to save his dying wife.

The film came about after a sudden death in Ahmed’s own family more than a decade ago. He was surprised to find how quickly funerals took place in Somalia, in line with Islamic principles. Ahmed was intrigued by the presence of gravediggers outside hospitals, always ready to dig a grave for the bereaved family in a couple of hours. “At that moment, I wanted to write about this gravedigger character, I wanted to show people that they exist.”

Although the first draft was written 10 years ago, Ahmed, who was a scriptwriter at the time, felt a Finnish director wouldn’t do the story justice. So he began working on his directing skills and in 2015 rewrote the script. In 2019 it entered production. It wasn’t an easy film to fund. Ahmed was originally asked to make the film in French and Somali and to cast famous non-Somali actors, but he refused. “I wanted to make this film with a 100% Somali cast and 100% Somali language, without a single word of another language. From the beginning to the end, everything is in Somali. That was something I fought for.”

Surviving poverty plays a central role in the plot but at its heart is a simple love story: a man is trying to save his beloved. “When there are films made about the Somali community, we are always depicted as cold or violent. We can create our own stories and tell those stories with dignity. Tell us about your grandmother, or your crazy cousin’s failing marriage, or your favourite neighbours – these are beautiful and heartwarming stories.”

For most of the cast, it was their first time acting. With the exception of Warsame and Abdi, who are from Canada and Finland respectively, the rest of the cast were from Djibouti. Ahmed came across Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim, who plays Mahad, only two weeks before the shoot; he had never acted before but impressed everyone with his improvisation on set.

Like many of the characters, Mahad was inspired by someone Ahmed knew in his childhood, a young boy whose mother was sick. “He would spend the whole day outside with the kids who didn’t have a home, but I was confused because he did have a home and he had parents. I understood later that he was avoiding his house as he didn’t understand his mother being ill. It was just easier for him to disassociate and have fun with his friends.” Similarly, the strong female characters are modelled on women in Ahmed’s life who were the breadwinners. “If you take out the female characters in this film, there is no story.”

“This is a Somali film: but it is a universal story because it is about the power of love and the things you do for the people you love. It’s about community and friendship and a little bit of everything that all humans experience regardless of where you are.”

  • The Gravedigger’s Wife screens at the London film festival on Friday and Saturday.

Read More: Somalia selects the ‘Gravediggers Wife’ as first ever Oscar submission 

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