'The Gravedigger's Wife': Somali-Finnish story wins at Toronto Film Festival

The victor tells the tale of a man who's trying to find ways to pay for his sick wife's treatment

When Somali-Finnish writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed was growing up in Mogadishu, he’d often see gravediggers waiting outside a nearby hospital on his walk to school.

Memories of men hoping to earn enough money to feed their families by burying the newly dead before sundown inspired his debut feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife. Filmed in Somali in Djibouti, the tenderly moving story of love and devotion follows Guled (Omar Abdi), a man who makes a precarious living from loss.

Guled’s earnings pay to care for his wife Nasra (Somali-Canadian model Yasmin Warsame), whose kidney infection is slowly killing her. He can never hope to earn the price of her treatment and Nasra, who is getting sicker, discourages Guled from returning to his home village to ask for help from the family that disowned him. She only wants to spend time with him and their troubled young son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim).

“I see it as a story about the power of love, about devotion, about community about friendship,” Ahmed tells The National.

After its world premiere at the Cannes Critics' Week in July, The Gravedigger’s Wife drew accolades at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, winning the Amplify Voices Award at the festival. The film will screen at the BFI London Film Festival in October ahead of its US debut at the Chicago International Film Festival, followed by the film’s African premiere at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. It will then open in Finland and Norway on Friday, November 12.

The Toronto screening experience was quite different from Cannes, where Ahmed, his family and the cast were the only Somalis in the audience, he says. In Toronto, a sizeable Somali population exists and people showed up to support the movie.

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For too long, Somali people have been presented to the world as pirates, as radicals, as warlords, all of those one-dimensional stereotypical images you can think of
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, director

“We had the entire Somali community show up to watch the film and it was incredible, the feedback,” said Ahmed. “I really took those people back, back to their homes, to their uncles, to their aunties, to their grandmothers. They really enjoyed it. And it was just a joy to see that.”

Few films are set in the Horn of Africa and those that are focus on stereotypes, says Ahmed.

“For too long, Somali people have been presented to the world as pirates, as radicals, as warlords, all of those one-dimensional stereotypical images you can think of,” he says. “I really just wanted to show my version of how I see myself, how I see my family, how I see my friends. And I wanted to tell this story with compassion, with tenderness, with love, with dignity, all these things I have been brought up with by my parents.”

Shot in 2019, with striking cinematography by Arttu Peltomaa, the crew on the Finland-Germany-France production was primarily Finnish, with a few French crew members. For most of them, it was their first time in Africa. Ahmed, who went to Finland in 1997 at the age of 16, was the only person among the crew who spoke Somali.

The cast was made up of untrained actors. Ahmed was determined to hire Warsame for the film after seeing her on fashion posters in Helsinki.

“From that moment, without ever talking to her, without knowing if she ever had acted in anything, I knew that she was Nasra. I knew that she was the woman that I wanted. So, my only mission was to get her on board,” he says.

Warsame, who's no stranger to the camera, read the script and fell in love with the story and her character. It felt familiar to her, touching elements of her life and her family.

Abdi, who's the lead actor, appeared in Ahmed’s 2008 short Citizens, while Fardouza Moussa Egueh, who plays Nasra’s doctor, is also the film’s third assistant director. The role of the couple’s son, Mahad, was cast at a local school. Ahmed hired other cast members off the street.

“The challenge of getting the best out of them as actors wasn’t easy,” he says. He insisted that none of the cast saw their scenes as they were being shot, so they wouldn’t feel self-conscious.

Ahmed sees Africa as the future of filmmaking, and it's where his next project, which is still under wraps, is going to be. It’s a rich place for storytelling and The Gravedigger’s Wife couldn’t have been set anywhere else, he says. “There are so many stories that can only be told in Africa.”

Updated: September 19th 2021, 1:49 PM