“The Gravedigger’s Wife”, a love story that points to the failures of health systems in Africa

Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger. Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) is sick. The situation of the Somali couple, who live in a popular district of the Djiboutian capital, is not enviable: their meager income does not allow them to treat the kidney infection which is causing Nasra to suffer. For his first feature film, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed gracefully depicts the loving tenderness shared by these heroes embodied by a sublime duo of actors whose chemistry amply validates the love story offered to the viewer. The Finnish filmmaker of Somali origin also signs a social drama which owes its strength to the conciseness of a perfectly mastered staging. Presented in world premiere at Critics’ Week in July 2021 in Cannes, The Gravedigger’s Wife has been screened at many festivals and has won several awards including the Etalon d’or du Yennenga at the last edition of Fespaco. It is also the first film in the history of Somali cinema to have been submitted for the Oscars. Interview with Khadar Ayderus Ahmed.

Franceinfo Africa: you could not attend the Fespaco. Where were you when you learned that you had won the Yennenga Golden Stallion, a prestigious award for African cinema?

Khadar Ayderus Ahmed : I followed the closing ceremony in Paris with friends. As the other prizes were handed out, it seemed clear to me that I hadn’t won anything. When the last prize was announced, my friends were certain that I had won it, whereas I no longer believed it. And when Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritanian filmmaker who chaired the Fespaco feature-length fiction jury, editor’s note) said the title of the film, we went crazy (smile)! I didn’t sleep that night! I am very happy to have won the Etalon d’or. I love Fespaco and it’s one of the festivals I’ve always dreamed of attending. I have always followed the Fespaco. I was also happy since the selection of the film.

Why did you decide to bring the daily life of this gravedigger and his wife suffering from a kidney infection that is difficult to treat for lack of means?

I was inspired by an event that happened in my family. For me, it was above all a question of showing an African love story. What I have never seen on screen. I didn’t want to let poverty take over in this story: it remains in the background. It is love, dignity, compassion and tenderness that are at the forefront although I focus on the health systems on the continent. In the West, in France for example, you are taken care of by the State when you go to the hospital. But in the majority of African countries, you have to pay everything out of your pocket to get treatment and not everyone can afford it. Many Africans die of minor illnesses because they have no money to pay hospital bills. I wanted to underline it through a love story.

Are the gravediggers really at the gates of hospitals in Djibouti as we discover in the film?

This is the case in Djibouti but also in Somalia and Ethiopia. There are indeed small groups of gravediggers in front of hospitals waiting to bury the dead and earn a little money for food.

How did you choose this magnificent couple formed by Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi?

When I was writing the screenplay, I knew it would be difficult to find actors who would agree to play intimate scenes because the Somalis are Muslims and it’s a very conservative environment. Yasmine Warsame is a supermodel and she did a summer campaign for H&M several years ago. His posters were all over Helsinki, Finland (where the director lives, Editor’s note), and she was sublime. I wanted to know who she was and found out she was Somali. I wanted her to play Nasra because she’s brave and she’s not afraid to break the rules. I told myself that if I was doing this film, it had to be her. I then contacted her. She read the script which she loved and she replied that she was in for it.

As for Omar, he is a longtime friend who lives, like me, in Helsinki. He had acted in a short film that I had made a few years ago. It was a natural choice for me. These two actors were my first and only choice. I never thought of anyone but them. Yasmin is adorable and a good actress. I wanted people to understand why this man loves this woman.

As for their child Mahad, played by Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim, I discovered him in Djibouti (where the film was shot, editor’s note) two weeks before the start of filming. I never gave him the script because I didn’t want acting to be a burden on him. So we improvised a lot. I explained to him what was going to happen in the scene and I told him what to do. It was his first film role and I wanted him to have fun playing it. He is a very talented child. I thus formed a family whose members came from three different continents: Yasmin from Canada in America, Omar from Finland in Europe, and Kadar from Djibouti, in Africa (laughs).

You shot in Djibouti and not in Somalia. Is this choice related to security issues?

We shot in this country for different reasons. The first being that Djibouti was part of Somalia (where we find the Somali, a community that lives in East Africa) before colonization. They speak the same language, practice the same religion and share the same culture. We also found in Djibouti all the landscapes that corresponded to the scenario, in particular the desert. Which wouldn’t have been the case if we had shot in Somalia. It is also for security reasons that we chose Djibouti because it is one of the safest countries in the world.

Your film is a window on Somali culture. Why did you insist on letting us discover it? ?

This culture is part of mine. I also wanted to show the younger generations of Somalis this culture as it is experienced in Africa. It is never frontally put forward but it remains in the background of the story.

How do you manage your dual culture, Somali and Finnish, especially when it comes to the nationality of your film which was Finnish at Critics’ Week and became Somali at Fespaco ?

And in some countries it was considered an Arab film… Somalia is one of the Arab nations. It’s an African film, it’s an Arab film, it’s a Finnish film… Everything suits me (laughs)!

As a member of the diaspora, it’s a little easier for you, even if it remains difficult, to make a film unlike a filmmaker working on the continent. As such, what can be your contribution to the development of the film industry on the continent?

An outside point of view makes it possible to approach a situation from another perspective. When we were in Djibouti, people approached us to ask us what we were doing. I told them that I was making a film about a gravedigger and they were amazed. The gravediggers are part of society but they are considered subhuman. It is my responsibility, as a filmmaker, to highlight these people who are dehumanized or who are ignored when they are part of society and bring a lot to it.

Many Djiboutians do not perceive the importance of these gravediggers. I consider it my responsibility to make their voices heard, as well as to share their stories. It is the advantage of this African diaspora to be able to have another look. I came to Finland when I was 16 and I often go back to Somalia. In reality, I do not consider myself as part of the African diaspora but as an African filmmaker who tells the continent from the inside.

Has your film been seen in Djibouti ? What does it feel like to screen his film in Somalia, a country in crisis since 1991 ?

Yes, and it was warmly received by audiences in both countries. Viewers have found themselves in these characters because they know people who have gone through the ordeals described in the film, namely struggling to find the money to treat their loved ones.

In Somalia, after the civil war, cinemas were closed. There was one in the capital Mogadishu, but it was closed. Terrorist groups had made it their headquarters. Today, the situation has improved and the cinema has reopened. In November 2021, my film was the first feature film to be screened in Somalia since the civil war.

The Gravedigger’s Wife, by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed
With Omar Abdi, Yasmin Warsame and Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim
French release: April 27, 2022