The award-winning film The Undertaker’s Wife looks like the work of an experienced director, yet it is Khadar Ahmed’s debut film.
Rhythm, timing and beauty show a confidence that belies the forty-year-old’s lack of experience.
He fled the civil war in Somalia with his family and ended up in Finland at the age of 16 – and never made it to film school.
“God knows how many times I’ve applied to film school but never got in,” he told the BBC.
However, promoting Somali-language cinema has become a goal: to show its culture and roots on the screen.
For Ahmed, winning the top prize last month at the prestigious African festival of Fespaco proves that dramas in his native language can cross borders.
The opposite of Bollywood
The Gravedigger’s Wife is a tender love story with dark comic flashes of how far a person can achieve to save someone they love. The gravedigger – Guled, played by Omar Abdi – sits outside the hospital with his companions, shovel in hand, waiting for a patient to die.
Ironically, it is only through these deaths that he can make money to help keep his sick wife, Nasra, alive. Played by Yasmin Warsame, she is dying of kidney failure. The huge cost of life-saving treatment forces Guled to make some extreme decisions.
This simple, scaled-down story, filmed with long silences and expansive landscapes, is nothing like the tales Ahmed grew up with. It’s reminiscent of a Bollywood movie diet full of music and dancing and happy ending.
“I had no references for this film, I had no film to compare it with,” says Ahmed. “So I had to create my own vision of how I see it.”
In fact, he doesn’t remember ever seeing a professionally made Somali film in theaters.
Her mother was in tears for the entire screening when The Gravedigger’s Wife premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. “She was so overwhelmed,” she says. “There are so many generations who have never had the pleasure and the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen. I wanted to create it.”
‘Sense of pride’
The Undertaker’s Wife is set, and was shot on location, in Djibouti, near Somalia, but has not yet been shown in the region.
A large audience of Somalis, and people of Somali descent, managed to see him at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “Everyone felt a sense of pride. It was a joy to see them having fun and then come to me afterwards,” says Ahmed.
The director also hopes that his journey towards making the film can serve as inspiration.
He never went to film school, received no formal directing training, and never worked on anyone else’s film set.
His journey began ten years ago when he wrote the first draft of the screenplay. He was so determined that he would direct it himself in Somali that he set it aside to learn the trade in part by absorbing ideas from the films he loved.
After seeing Bollywood, he turned to cinema around the world, including South Korea and Iran. But his biggest influence was the films made on the African continent. Admire in particular the work of the Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, president of the jury of the Fespaco prize.
Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun also made an impact on Ahmed and remembers crying over the beauty of his 2010 film A Screaming Man.
After studying these films and trying to understand their techniques, he directed two short films and wrote a screenplay in Finnish before feeling able to take on The Undertaker’s Wife.
I want to encourage young African directors, non-privileged directors to grab the cameras and do their own thing. “
Now he wonders if he went to film school if the experience would change him for the better or for the worse.
“I want to encourage young African directors, the underprivileged directors, to really grab the cameras and do their own thing. Write their own stories, capture their own lives and do it themselves, because not everyone is that privileged.”
He himself is determined to continue making films in Africa: “I come from the continent and I believe that the future of cinema is in Africa. There are so many stories that cannot be set in Western countries”.
“The film is the biggest prize”
He believes the precariousness of life and the dilemmas that people like his fictitious gravedigger face are what can create great drama. But when it comes to gender, he’s eager to explore the possibilities.
“I want to do comedies, I want to do science fiction, I want to do westerns, horror films and thrillers,” he says.
The Fespaco award could help him do that, but for now, after years of refining his vision, “having the film made was the biggest prize”.
“I’m really happy that all of this is happening for the film.”
More on cinema and Africa:
- The movies where the police join as extras
- The film celebrates love across the South African religious divide
- “Because I made a film for £ 5,000”
- Is Hollywood ready to stop stereotyping Africa?
A quick guide to Somalia
- January 4, 2018
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