Cannes 2021: The feature debut of Somali-born Finnish director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed received warm applauses yesterday from the Cannes’ Critics’ Week live audience.
“It’s a filmmaker’s dream to be in Cannes with a first feature - I’m so happy and proud to be here” said Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, moved to tears in front of an audience of film lovers, family and friends.
The up-and-coming Finnish director was on stage to present his debut feature, together with lead actors Omar Abdi from Helsinki, Canadian model/actor Yasmin Warsame, producers Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff and Risto Nikkilä from Bufo, French and German co-producers from Pyramide and Twenty Twenty Vision, as well as sales rep Orange Studio.
“This is a beautiful love story about being strong for the ones you love, filmed with a soft and sensitive camera work that celebrates the characters’ beauty and dignity,” said the Critics Week’s artistic director Charles Tesson, underlining the film’s poetry in his introductory speech.
Written and directed by Ayderus Ahmed, known for the short film The Night Thief (2017) and the screenplay for Juho Kuosmanen’s multi-awarded short film Citizens (2008), The Gravedigger’s Wife is the story of the gravedigger Guled, his wife Nasra and teenage son Mahad who live on the outskirts of Djibouti city. Guled struggles to make ends meet.
When the health of his beloved wife who suffers from chronic kidney problems, suddenly worsens, he goes on a quest to raise the money for an operation, a journey that take him back to his native village. But his return turns out to be more punishing than rewarding. Meanwhile the clever and resourceful Mahad also tries to earn money to save his mother.
The film’s top crew members include Finnish DoP Arttu Peltomaa (Thick Lashes of Lauri Mäntyvaara), production designer Antti Nikkinen (Peacemaker, Land of Hope), German editor Sebastian Thümler (Chiko) and Finnish-based French costume designer Anu Gould (Holy Motors).
The Gravedigger’s Wife opens new grounds for Finland as the first Finnish film shot entirely in Africa, spoken in Somali, and first ever film entry to the prestigious Critics Week.
The film was co-financed by ZDF, in collaboration with ARTE, Yle, support among others from the Finnish Film Foundation. The film will be released by B-Plan in Finland and Urban Distribution in France.
The Mogadishu-born Finnish director spoke to us yesterday from the Orange Studio terrace at 35 La Croisette in Cannes.
How does it feel to be in Cannes?
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed: It is any filmmakers’ dream to be in Cannes, especially at the Critics’ Week. I have to pinch myself… otherwise I would think it’s a dream. I am in Cannes with my mum and my brother. The rest of my family couldn’t come due to Covid. It’s insane to be here, especially after such a difficult year under the pandemic. I don’t know what to expect from the future but I’m really living in the moment!
When did you first dream of becoming a writer/director? Where does your interest in storytelling come from?
KAA: I was used to hearing stories from my grand-father when I was a child. Then I would tell the same stories to my friends. I started going to the cinema and absolutely loved it. I would watch Indian/Bollywood movies as these are hugely popular in Somalia. It’s only when I came to Finland -aged 16, as a refugee with my family, that I started watching US and other movies.
How did you become a filmmaker?
KAA: I didn’t succeed in getting into a film school, so I decided to take things into my own hands. I rented a small camera, lighting materials and filmed my family and friends. The first thing I really wanted to learn was how to write. I bought books about screenwriting by Syd Field and practiced a lot.
Did you get a mentor or specific people in the Finnish film industry, who guided you, as you didn’t have a built-in network from a film school? I guess connecting with Juho Kuosmanen for his short film Citizens -starring also Omar Abdi - must have been part of the stepping stones…
KAA: Juho is a wonderful person, so talented. I’m so happy to be in Cannes with him. But one crucial encounter was actress/filmmaker/writer/producer Auli Mantila. I sent her one of my short films and she really liked it. We met and she said - 'you have potential' - I want to be your mentor! That was wonderful. Then the Finnish Film Foundation set up a short screenplay film competition to discover new talent. Auli said I should apply, and she backed me. That’s how I wrote Citizens and met Juho.
Then you attended the Cannes Cinéfondation Résidence in 2015 with the project for The Gravedigger’s Wife. That must have been another crucial step for you….
KAA: Yes it opened all the doors for me. So many industry people follow the Cinéfondation participants. With that label, you attract a lot of attention.
Once I had the script for The Gravedigger’s Wife, I looked for producers in Finland who would be best suited for the project. As Bufo are arthouse-oriented and worked with a wide range of auteurs - from Aki Kaurismäki, Jörn Donner to Pirjo Honkasalo - I felt they would be perfect. Plus they have a lot of experience in international co-productions. Luckily, they liked the script!!
How did you get the idea for the film and what did you want to tell?
KAA: All my stories are based on conversations with my families or friends. And in this instance, I was inspired by the sudden death of my brother’s baby that happened 10 years ago. It was the first time I was attending an Islamic funeral and I was surprised how lengthy and complicated it was in Finland. On the funeral day, my brother asked if I knew how easy it was to bury people in Somalia. I said…no! He reminded me that gravediggers in Somalia wait outside hospitals and do the job in a few hours only. Then the gravedigger character came into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone! I decided to sit down and write about that character and I built the rest of the story around him.
It is quite a simple and beautiful love story, but it also brings in African oral tradition of storytelling, mixing reality and fairy tales. I guess it was important for you to pay tribute to your Somali roots…
KAA: Absolutely. I’ve seen only films about Somalia from a Western prism, and naturally, they lack the depth, knowledge of the country’s rich cultural background, symbolism that only natives are familiar with. I don’t relate to those stories that are often negative, full of stereotypes. I wanted to portray Somali people as simple human beings, through a story that I could relate to, and tell it with compassion and tenderness.
What were the challenges of filming in Djibouti?
KAA: The entire crew was from Finland. Quite many crew members got sick, so sometimes we would go shooting with a very small crew while the rest of the crew was sick at the hotel. But all in all, these were minor problems.
The film is only one of a handful of films selected in Cannes and its sidebars, featuring the African continent. How do you feel about that and do you feel Finland is making progress with representation and diversity on screen?
KAA: I feel everybody is talking about diversity in Finnish films and TV series, I still don’t see much improvement. Unless we have black writers/directors in key decision-making roles, proper representation, true diversity will still be lacking.