Writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed discusses making his feature debut, The Gravedigger’s Wife, a love story set in Djibouti City.
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In his introduction to the TIFF digital screenings of The Gravedigger’s Wife, writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed said he’s interested in exploring social issues, discussing taboos, and handing the mic to typically voiceless people in his filmmaking. The Gravedigger’s Wife, his feature debut, does just that. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, but based, since his teenage years, in Finland, Ahmed felt an urge to make his first film in Africa, so he could tell African people’s stories in a way that they’re rarely told. In his words, “We are a nation of stories and poems, but we have always been presented to the world as pirates.”
The film follows Guled (Omar Abdi), a gentle soul who works as a gravedigger in Djibouti City. There’s a friendly camaraderie between the men working this poorly paid job, established when they sit around and joke together in the opening scenes. That contrasts against the morbidity of their actual work: when they hear an ambulance approaching the hospital, they rush to it with shovels at the ready, and slump in disappointment when there’s no dead body to bury.
As Alex Heeney puts in her review, “The great irony is that Guled earns his living by waiting for people to die, but is desperate to make extra cash to save his wife’s life.” His wife is Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), who is sick with a kidney infection; all the family’s money is going towards her medication. At the start of the film, their situation seems bleak but manageable. We see several lovely scenes of Guled and Nasra’s married life, cooking together, dreaming about the future, laughing about their past, even crashing a wedding. There’s so much warmth and history between them. Their biggest problem, beyond Nasra’s illness, seems to be that their son, Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim), keeps skipping school.
But then Nasra collapses, and a doctor tells Guled that she needs a $5,000 (USD) operation, or else she’ll die. It’s an amount of money that’s practically unthinkable for Guled to gather in such a short amount of time, and yet his love for Nasra knows no bounds. We watch him desperately pursue every possible avenue to fundraise, from asking friends to knocking door to door, and eventually, returning to his estranged family who haven’t talked to him since he ran away to marry Nasra. There’s a foreboding sense that nothing Guled can do will be good enough, and yet the film avoids total bleakness because of the powerful love story at its heart. Guled will do anything for love; the question is, in a society that puts a price on human life, is ‘anything’ enough?
After a career as a screenwriter, working with filmmakers such as Juho Kuosmanen (who is also at TIFF with Compartment Number 6), The Gravedigger’s Wife, which premiered at Cannes, announces Ahmed as a director to watch. I spoke with him about how he became a director so he could make his own script, avoiding cliches of African cinema, and crafting the film’s gorgeous visuals.
Seventh Row (7R): What inspired you to write The Gravedigger’s Wife?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: The story is inspired by a true incident that took place in my family ten years ago. A family member died, and I was asked to arrange the funeral. The process for funerals in Finland was long and tiring; my older brother asked me if I remembered how easy it was to bury someone back home in Africa. He reminded me of these gravediggers that were always ready in front of the hospitals to bury the dead. From there, the process took me back to my childhood memories.
I wrote the first draft exactly ten years ago, but then I left the script aside after the first draft, because I was only a writer at the time. I was based in Finland at the time, in Helsinki, and there were no Somali film directors in the country. I knew no Finnish director would do as much justice to the story as I would, so I decided to put it aside and get experience directing. I worked on other films, shorts and features, and then when I was ready, I got the script back in 2015. That’s when I started to work on it again.
I could honestly say that if I made this film ten years ago, it would have turned out to be completely different. I have grown as a person. I have been through a lot of stuff that made my life richer. For example, I got married. At the time when I wrote the first draft, I wasn’t married. So I’m happy that the film came together at this point in my life. But the core of this story always stayed the same.
7R: One of the great things about the film is the romance, and I imagine your perspective on that might have changed since getting married. I love how you sprinkle in these small moments of affection between Guled and Nasra at the beginning of the story, to establish their romance.
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: I have a family [full of couples] that have stayed together for many years. Whenever I write, I always take people I know as an example for the characters. Mahad is based on a character that I knew back home. There was this kid neighbour whose mother was sick because he couldn’t understand what was happening at home. He preferred to be outside with his friends. He would do anything to avoid his situation.
The marriage, also, was the same for me, with my aunts and uncles, who have been married for many, many years. And I had never seen a love story from Africa. There’s always radical histories about heresy, civil war, or human trafficking. I really wanted to show the love that we have at home.
7R: Were there other things you wanted to show that you didn’t often see in films about Africa?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: Absolutely. This was one of the reasons why I set the film in Djibouti and why I also wanted to portray the family with dignity, compassion, and tenderness. We are a nation of stories and poems, but we have always been presented to the world as pirates. In movies made by Hollywood or from western perspectives, they don’t humanise us.
I really wanted to show my version of how I see myself, my neighbours, my family members. It was kind of like an answer: to also let younger generations know that everything they see on their screens is not who we are. There’s a different side to us.
7R: How did you think about how you wanted to write the character of Guled as this sort of hero figure fighting against extreme adversity?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: I really don’t think he’s a hero. In the film he makes some stupid mistakes. I wanted to portray this simple, quiet, family man, and also I wanted to combine reality with fairytale. In the third part of the film, [when] he goes on a journey to the village, it turns into a fairytale, in a way. I wanted to make that fairytale very realistic.
The film deals with heavy subjects, but I didn’t want it to be dark or depressing. I wanted it to be warm and tender. And also [I wanted to make it feel] a little bit of poetry, in the way that they’re sharing their stories with the family in the desert, and also Mahad with his mother. I really wanted to put a lot of different elements in the story to give it different layers.
7R: Can you talk about working with your cinematographer, Arttu Peltomaa, to work out what you wanted to convey visually?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: This was our third collaboration; we have done everything that I have directed together. We had a lot of discussions about how I wanted to portray the family: the warmth, the love. Arttu is really very thoughtful.
For him to understand what I was trying to bring, I had to take him to Djibouti. We went there, I think, three years before we started shooting, to get to know the locals, to see locations, for him to see and to feel it before he started. That helped us a lot. He really captured the essence of what I was aiming for.
7R: What kind of visual rules did you come up with for the film?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: I wanted the story to be really subtle and really visual. I didn’t want to have a handheld camera that follows the characters. Sometimes, when I watch movies [shot in this style], they make me feel a little bit restless. I wanted to set the camera in one place, and let the characters do the movement, instead of the camera moving around the characters. I think it’s more touching when it comes from the characters, from the performances, than when it comes from the camera.
That scene where, when Nasra is talking about their [hers and Guled’s] future plans, that was [ a scene where] we put the camera there, and I just told the cast, Omar and Yasmin, to do the movements. We choreographed the whole scene instead of moving the camera around them. I really wanted to be as calm as possible, so that people would just sit and be immersed into the world, rather than making them feel shaky or restless.
7R: What is your process for working with actors? Did you have much time to work with the cast before the shoot?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: The entire cast were non-professionals. Yasmin was the most experienced because she’s a supermodel, so she’s used to being on camera with the crew around her. Omar also was part of a short film that was shot twelve or thirteen years ago. I did street casting with the rest of the actors. [Kadar] the young boy [who plays] Mahad, I found him two weeks before the shoot started.
Yasmin is based in Canada; Omar is based in Helsinki, Finland; and Kadar is based in Djibouti. This was a small budget film, so we didn’t really have enough money or time to bring these people together to do rehearsal. I read the script with Omar and Yasmin through Zoom, and then we set up a three-day acting coach for Yasmin and Omar in Helsinki.
But no, we really didn’t do any type of rehearsal, because I didn’t want to do it with them. I wanted the performances to be as authentic as possible. I’m not really that into rehearsals, even though I have a huge respect for actors, because what they do is tremendously hard.
The thing that I like about inexperienced actors is that they give very authentic performances. Especially Kadar, the young boy, who was incredible. Forget about a [film] camera, he had never faced even a cell phone camera before. So he was just incredible and easy to direct.
7R: Do you have ways to help non-professional actors feel comfortable on camera?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: Absolutely. This was something that we discussed with Arttu, the cinematographer, a lot: how not to bring the camera closer to the actors, right up in their faces. Not to scare them. We wanted to give them the space to be really comfortable with each other. We set the camera up far away, and we were just changing the lenses instead of bringing the camera closer to their faces. It’s all about trust. We had a tremendous trust for each other.
7R: You said that you were going to Djibouti years before the film was even shot. What was the process for location scouting? How many times did you go there before the shoot, and how did you pick the specific locations?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: Djibouti is a very small country. We had two cars for the crew, and we went, I think, six months before we started shooting, for scouting. I see images in my head, so whenever I see a spot or a location that I felt was visual enough to add something to the story, I would just stop, and then we would take pictures from here. I chose all the locations, and it was easy, because they were all close to each other. As you can see, the locations are the fourth character in the film, besides Guled, Nasra, and Mahad.
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