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'A Girl from Mogadishu' director on the power of testimony


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A Girl from Mogadishu, from writer-director Mary McGuckian, depicts the harrowing true story of Ifrah Ahmed, a refugee from war-torn Somalia who was trafficked to Ireland in 2006.

Ahmed later became an international activist against gender-based violence and female genital mutilation, of which she was a victim. We spoke to McGuckian about her latest film, which stars Aja Naomi King as Ahmed.

When and how did you first come across Ifrah’s story?

Mary:  I first met Ifrah at a UN event, an event for young, emerging filmmakers from Africa – and I thought she was one of the filmmakers, but she wasn’t – somebody had brought her along to see if I, as an Irish female filmmaker, would want to make a documentary about her.

So I met her; I knew who she was. She’s an extraordinary person and when you’re thinking about making a film, there’s always three questions I ask before committing: first is, would I be fascinated by the topic? I knew what FGM was, but I didn’t know much, so that was shocking. The second was, in Ifrah’s story is there a compelling character that could carry a narrative? And of course there is. The third was, is there an underlying thesis that warrants more than a documentary treatment? I felt there was once I spoke to her and understood the power of testimony, and how she used her story as a campaign to change world views.

Image courtesy of EIFF 2019

Was Ifrah involved in the making of this?

Mary: Hugely; she had to be. She was very, very young, I was taking a very sensitive topic and turning her experience into a movie. I didn’t want her to have a cinema legacy she wasn’t comfortable with, and the point of making the film is partly to support what she does. So she had to be involved.

The fundamental question for me was always, is there a universal thesis that warrants a cinematic telling of the story. And in order to be true to Ifrah’s story and to give it voice, a voice that I didn’t necessarily have – I had half a voice, I’m female, I’m Irish – but I’m not an African immigrant and I’ve not experienced FGM… and in that exploration of how I would facilitate her story, was this idea of the power of testimony. The whole structure of the film is in her own telling. What’s extraordinary is that we started the film around the time that #MeToo happened, and the premise of the film is the power of one young girl’s courage to stand up and tell her truth.

There’s an overwhelming focus on the experiences of white, middle-class women in this #MeToo and Time’s Up era. Was that at the back of your mind when you were telling this very different story?

Mary: It wasn’t at the back of my mind. I’ve been at this for a long time, and trying to get any film made where the lead is female, and the narrative is not told in relation to a male character, has been nearly impossible. I really believe in telling this story, but the odds are stacked against us. In European cinema, there is no film that I’m aware of which is a single-character narrative of a first-generation immigrant woman into a white country, and that’s taken off.

Did that make it more difficult to get funding for your film?

Mary: At any other time, it would have been impossible. We were very lucky in Ireland that we were in a time of change. We have a film board that has decided to develop and support the production of films for and by women. I can’t see how it would have happened otherwise. And even now it’s hard to get larger budgets for these films, to realise their ambitions. And even after festivals, the problem lies with distributors, who don’t seem to know how to market films for 51% of the population. They still think of women as a minority.

Image courtesy of EIFF 2019

Do you treat filmmaking as a form of activism?

Mary: Inevitably, given the times we’re in for female filmmakers, it will be. There’ll be a lot of screaming and shouting, and people with an awful lot to say. It will level out eventually, but the doors have been closed for so long that now they’re beginning to open, people are going to be mad at it. The tough part is finding audiences for these films. Interestingly, I feel that treating it as activism is perpetuating and reinforcing the notion of films for and by women, as a minority genre.

From your perspective, what needs to be done to stop ‘women’s films’ from being regarded as a minority genre?

Mary: We need more of those films, and have them be supported. And that will only happen when distributors learn how to market them, and believe that it’s worth learning how to find audiences. Slowly they are, but you have to unpick it for them. They know they need to support it because it’s trendy, but they haven’t really thought it through; there aren’t that many men jumping up and down about it. Most are just going with the wave because it’s media-savvy to do so.

Are you worried that if their motivation is just to ‘ride the wave’, that the wave is going to crash?

Mary: We’re over the critical mass. The statistics tell us that – we’re getting more than 30% of films directed by women. Not in the big patriarchal festivals, but in the others. And also because the younger generation is much more evolved. I do believe there’s no turning back now. 

Watch the trailer for A Girl From Mogadishu now. 

Lead image courtesy of EIFF 2019

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