A group of shabbily dressed men, each carrying a shovel, wait outside a hospital in Djibouti City, Somalia, in the faint hope that someone will die. They are professional gravediggers, and their living depends upon being at hand when a corpse becomes available. Their friendly banter is an odd contrast to both their grim profession and their poverty. This is the gritty reality that introduces director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s first feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife, a multi-nation collaboration filmed in Somalia, which had its world premiere at Cannes in July. It is also Somalia’s very first Oscar submission.
Director Ahmed, who also wrote the screenplay, explained why he chose such an obscure and lowly profession for his main character when introducing the film at the Toronto Film Festival. “The film was really important to me in so many ways,” he said, “Because, as a filmmaker, I’m always interested in addressing social issues; talking about things that are not addressed, or are taboo to talk about, or are unpopular. For me, it was all about handing the microphone to these people; to let them talk, and have their voices heard”.
The central character is Guled (Omar Abdi), a man with a wife and son. Despite the family’s extreme poverty, Guled has been content with his life, until his beloved wife, Nasra, became ill. Treatment for her kidney disease would cost more than the family would see in a year. Nasra is resigned, but Guled still hopes to find a way to save her, and his efforts make up the central thread of the story.
Nasra is played by fashion model Yasmin Warsame in her first acting role. She was offered the part when the filmmakers saw her photo on a billboard; one of the film’s producers, Risto Nikkila, commented that “Khadar [Ahmed] has a really good eye for finding the right people,” noting that the director sometimes does “street casting”, choosing unknown people primarily for their look, without audition. In this case, the process seems to have worked; Warsame captures Nasra’s charm, her calm acceptance of her fate, and her love for her family, perfectly, and her chemistry with Omar Abdi as Guled is perfect. Their close relationship comes across beautifully, especially during their few lighthearted moments, as when they playfully try to crash a wedding, discuss their son, or simply chat and reminisce as they cook dinner together at home. These scenes are essential; the couple’s attachment seems to raise them above their obvious poverty, and it is the force behind Guled’s actions in the remainder of the film.
The story follows Guled as he searches for a way to raise the money for his wife’s surgery, becoming increasingly desperate and finally settling on a difficult and humiliating solution. The plan involves a punishing journey on foot through the desert, presented almost in the form of a quest or pilgrimage; and a painful emotional ordeal as well. As he travels, the film follows what is happening at home with his wife and son. Nasra is declining, and with his father absent, their son Mahad (novice actor Kadar Ibrahim) sets aside his boyish unruliness and devotes himself to caring for his mother, in simple but heartwarming family scenes. He even makes pitiful attempts to raise a little money for his mother’s medical care. In contrast, Guled’s efforts become more rigorous and increasingly hopeless, and he may have to face the prospect of returning home empty handed.
Guled’s absence allows for a moving turn in the story, in which details of Guled and Nasra’s courtship and marriage are described through alternating scenes: of the bedridden Nasra telling the story to her son, and of Guled pausing in his journey to relate his version to fellow travellers. The circumstances of their marriage, as it turns out, partly explains their poverty, and adds depth to the realities of their home life. Director Ahmed has commented on his wish to present these characters “with dignity, compassion, and tenderness”, something he certainly achieves with his central characters.
While The Gravedigger’s Wife is essentially the story of a family crisis, the choice of people and setting was important to the filmmakers. There are, as the director commented, “many layers” to the story, and the location is one of those layers. According to producer Misha Jaari, the director chose to focus on the least prosperous part of Somalia, “Not the part most outsiders see”. He mentioned during the TIFF press conference that the idea of making the protagonist a gravedigger was based on real people who do this kind of work in Somalia. Actor Omar Abdi, who played Guled, pointed out that the impoverished area was by no means a shock to the director: “He was familiar with it”.
Most of all, Ahmed wanted to present Somalia and its people, including its poorest people, to the world. He commented in a recent interview that he had never seen a movie love story set in Africa; he found this at odds with the close family ties and longstanding marriages he was familiar with among his relatives, something he wanted to portray on film. The Hollywood perspective, he said, tended not to fully humanise African characters. During the TIFF press conference, cast members were asked whether there were concerns about this issue, especially when bringing in a foreign film crew. Producer Risto replied, “You have to respect the country where you go; you have to listen to the local people. We met the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Communication, and they helped us make this movie. The attitude from all of us from the beginning was, we are asking for your help”. He recalls encounters with the residents of Djibouti City fondly: “The people were amazing; they were really helpful, and it was a nice experience for us all”.
Actress Yasmine Warsame agreed with Risto, adding: “I think they took that view because you approached with respect. If you’d behaved in any way invasively, it would have been different”. She emphasised that the attitude of respect “made all the difference” in the success of the film in a site that had never been used as a film set before; while Omar Abdi suggested that the people of Djibouti City liked the idea of a story being told about them, the Somali people. “We’re a nation of stories and poems,” Khadar Ahmed commented in a recent interview with film writer Orla Smith, “But we have always been presented to the world as pirates”. This film is a first step toward changing that.