Movie tells the story of a remarkable woman

CARA O’DOHERTY talks to the director of a new movie about a woman who sought refuge in Ireland and is now one of the world’s leading campaigners on FGM
Movie tells the story of a remarkable woman

A POWERFUL STORY: Aja Naomi King as Ifrah Ahmed in Girl From Mogadishu.

DIRECTOR Mary McGuckian’s latest film, A Girl From Mogadishu, tells the story of a remarkable woman, Ifrah Ahmed. Ahmed is on a mission to stamp out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This pseudo-medical procedure has a detrimental physical impact on the health of more than 200 million women who have undergone the process.

Ahmed’s story is one of astounding resilience. She underwent FGM at a young age, married a man more than three times her age when she was 15, underwent a horrifying attack by soldiers, before being people-trafficked from her native Somalia during the war.

She sought asylum in Ireland, learned to speak English, became an Irish citizen and has become the world’s leading authority on FGM. A Human Rights advisor to the Government of Somalia, she founded the Ifrah Foundation which is working towards the complete eradication of FGM.

McGuckian had heard of Ahmed but didn’t know her full story. A chance meeting at Cannes led to her decision to tell her story.

“I was doing a pitching workshop for emerging filmmakers from Africa for a charity. All these fabulous Ethiopian filmmakers were standing up and doing their pitches, and this fabulous looking girl in the corner with a big, beautiful headscarf never stood up. I thought maybe she was shy, so I asked her why she was there. She was there on behalf of the UNHCR to ensure that if someone’s story was to be told, it be done with caution and not sensationalised. She told me a little bit about herself, and I knew I had to tell her story.”

The message to not over- dramatise was one that McGuckian was determined to stick to when it came to filming Ahmed’s story.

“Often, activists or so-called activists become the face of other people’s campaigns. They amplify the message, but as a consequence, they also sensationalise the story but don’t necessarily impact on the issue. It’s a very fine line. One of the reasons we made the film was so that Ifra could move on from it. Her story is her story, and it’s a phenomenal story. She has used it generously and courageously to campaign against FGM and highlights it, but the reality of what she does with her foundation is way past her own story by now.”

Ahmed acted as a consultant on the film and provided McGuckian with much-needed advice on Somali culture.

“It was important for me for Ifhra to be across everything because so much of the story was so sensitive. I wanted to make sure she never felt it was being taken away from her or reappropriated in any way. Still, it was also credibly helpful to the authenticity of the overall project that she was there. She was involved in all departments, from wardrobe to what people were cooking in the scenes set in Somalia. We had screenings in East Africa where the audience thought we had filmed in Somalia, that’s how authentic the film is. We filmed in Morocco, but few people recognised that.”

Ifrah Ahmed, International Person of the Year Award at the 43rd Rehab People of the Year Awards, in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Picture. Robbie Reynolds
Ifrah Ahmed, International Person of the Year Award at the 43rd Rehab People of the Year Awards, in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Picture. Robbie Reynolds

American actor Aja Naomi King plays Ahmed in the film. McGuckian says the two women became fast friends and that Ahmed helped King perfect her accent.

“It was a little daunting for Aja in the beginning. The person she was playing was on set, but they became good friends. They look so alike that when they were in costume, they became interchangeable. At one point in filming Aja got stuck during a terrible storm and Ifra took her place on set.”

Some of the film is spoken in Somali, but it was another actor, Barkhad Abdi, who became McGuickian’s surprise translator.

“He’s so seasoned and has made some huge films. He was so sweet to agree to be in this. He talked to his father about the film, and he told him to take part. I wrote lines in English for the Somalia actors and Barkhad decided he would translate them. He dealt with all of the extras and the actors in the small parts. Somali people from all around Europe are in this and he wanted to help. It’s tough to direct a film that is partially in a language you don’t speak. It becomes very complicated, but he was incredibly generous with his time.”

Some of the scenes are sensitive, and McGuickan took a careful approach to film them.

“You have to take on board, what is the objective of the scene? What are you trying to achieve? Are you objectifying the character or even the actor in the process of creating the scene? And you have to consider the audience and bear in mind that audiences in different cultures and different countries in different territories have different cultural sensitivity. I tend to be very rigorous that what is shown is necessary. Once you decide that it is easier to construct those difficult scenes.”

Ahmed tells us that seeing her story unfold before her eyes was strange at first.

“In the beginning, it was strange to see my story played out in a movie, but I was there during the shooting, so I got used to it. The first time I watched the movie, I cried because I was thinking about my grandmother. It was a little strange,” she said.

“I had the opportunity to meet Aja before she started the role; we talked a lot about her activities and work on human rights. She is active in the Black Lives Matters campaign. We got on well, and actually, she looks a lot like me!”

A Girl From Mogadishu is in cinemas now.

It’s a phenomenal story... She has used it generously and courageously to campaign against FGM and highlights it, but the reality of what she does with her foundation is way past her own story by now.

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