On Sunday, July 21, IFC Center screened A Girl from Mogadishu as a part of 51fest's inaugural run. It is a narrative feature based on the life of Ifrah Omar, directed by Mary McGuckian. Born into a refugee-camp in Somalia, Ifrah (portrayed by Aja Naomi King) treks a tumultuous journey to seek asylum in Ireland after a traumatic incident. Ifrah is further traumatized when she realizes she has gone through female genital mutilation (FGM) and vows to become an advocate for eradicating the practice. A Girl From Mogadishu is intended as homage to the power of testimony, that when woman are able to speak out, it becomes a catalyst for change.
Below is 51fest's Q&A, with director Mary McGuckian, the real-life Ifrah Omar, and actor Barkhad Abdi, moderated by Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani. This Q&A has been modified and edited.
Q: How did you come across Ifrah’s story?
MM: I met through mutual friends in the UN a number of years ago. She was already a national treasure in Ireland, we all knew who she was, and a number of documentaries had already been made about her. We had a little discussion of whether or not there might be a movie in her story.
Q: How did you get this project off the ground, on such a sensitive subject matter that deals with not just female genital mutilation, but the refugee crisis and war as well? How did you get the funding?
MM: You bring up an interesting topic. For many, many years I could not get any film made that had a female lead character. To think about a film lead by a female lead character who was Irish, originally from Africa, and dealing with a number of topics as sensitive as sexual violence, FGM and gender-based violence… wasn’t going to be easy. But the world is changing, it has changed. In fact, there are some activists here today, this wasn’t an overnight thing… Melissa Silverstein from Women and Hollywood is here tonight, and organizations like hers have been pushing the agenda for many years to try and change, like what 51fest is trying to celebrate here, the position of women in film and the portrayal of films about women. The world’s started to change, and thanks to that, we were able to get the funding for it.
Q: How strange or uplifting was it to see your own story portrayed on screen in a narrative like this?
IO: From the beginning, it has been hard. I remember when I first met with Mary, the question she first asked me was “how would you feel about a movie made about your story” The first thing that came to my head was that the world has acknowledged HIV and AIDS, people know about it, and I want people to know FGM in that way. That FGM isn’t just for “their” culture, “their” issues, that it’s everybody’s issue.
I don’t want people to see me as a victim. I want people to see me as an advocate for young girls, to save young girls and women who were affected by FGM. For me, it’s not about me, it’s about the girls.
Q: FGM is considered a “women’s issue”, but it affects everyone, men and women. Why was it important for you to be a part of the film?
BA: Thank you to everyone for coming, first of all. I’m very happy that I was part of this project, I’m very pleased to be part of the movement to end FGM. It’s a very very bad heritage, and I still don’t know when FGM started, but what I can tell you is that Somali men, we don’t know much about it. It’s not something that we hear about, even when girls complain about it; it’s just not something we hear. So, honestly I was blind to this until I was here in the US. Some girls I went to high school with, friends here and there, I heard stories about them being bothered and being hurt by it. This film helped me a lot, and I [commend] Ifrah for being such a strong woman, to talk about such a hard topic.
Q: How important is it for men to be part of this conversation?
IO: I remember when Mary told me that Barkhad would be part of the movie, I was so pleased. Barkhad is really well-known around the world in Captain Phillip and other movies, so it was really such a great honor, because I feel that many Somali men, but not just Somali, many young men admire him. I remember in Dublin, at a rugby match, a lot of people were calling out to Barkhad, “oh, the pirate from Captain Phillip!” We really did appreciate him taking part in the subject.
Q: Mary, you could have approached this as a documentary, but you chose to do it in a narrative way. What kind of freedoms did you get by opting for that approach?
MM: There are many, many documentaries about FGM, Ifrah herself makes documentaries about FGM. I know how to do drama, I don’t necessarily know how to make documentaries. The big question were: What would be different? Is the topic strong enough? Is it a compelling enough narrative? Is the character charismatic and compelling enough to drive a drama (which, clearly anyone who’s met Ifrah knows that it is very much the case)? And, could it become the kind of film that would do for FGM what Philadelphia did for HIV/AIDS. Could we raise the conversation to the level of political influence that would make a difference?
Q: When it comes to FGM, it’s not necessarily about legislation. But it’s also about changing hearts and minds and cultures. How important is that component: can you weigh them more than the other?
IO: It’s so hard, because of believing in the culture strongly, and also, being a part of the community is completely different. For me, it’s always sharing my story, I believe that it will go global, reach the level where people will speak up, that they don’t have to wait for young girls to die bleeding, or because of FGM. I want to go global so that everyone will be aware of it.
Q: How important is that message in the USA? A lot of people might not know, but there’s a court case going on right now where the US no longer has an anti-FGM law. How important is your message to the US, the country where people probably think: this isn’t happening here?
IO: Some of the states have laws, but some of the states don’t. We have a lot of communities that practice FGM. America is the country where all celebrities come from, and my voice needs to get to the level of having celebrities speak out. Outsiders and young women who are born and raised in this country are taken out of the country and have been cut… [They] have a right to be protected, and the right is not theirs. I hope we reach a point where everyone speaks out and we can save these young girls.
Q: Barkhad, you lend your status as a celebrity and acting prowess to this cause. Is that important for you when you are choosing your roles, does it have to be a film like this? To use your celebrity cache for good?
BA: Of course. Whatever we can to send a message out there. People, especially the communities that matter, the Somali community, the Sudanese community, East African countries… It’s not something we talk about as men. This subject needs to be addressed. Whoever’s doing it behind closed doors needs to be told on, and we need laws to persecute those people.
Q: A core component of the film was about we treat society’s refugees. How is the refugee situation in Ireland? And screening in the United States, what message do you want people to take away?
MM: Ifrah would speak about this better than I would. But in the context of what’s been going on in the past few days and making it to American, I found it rather heartfelt that Ifrah reached to Maya Angelou to what she’s been experiencing. In the film, we pay homage to Maya Angelou. What is working for women’s movement and raising issues comes from the African American family as a community. “Lift as you rise”, all of these mantras we are responding to come from this country. But the Irish experience, Ifrah would speak on this better than I would, but we’re not saints in Ireland as well.
IO: Well, Ireland is better than the USA. Nobody tells you to go back home. I’m very lucky, as my refugee status processed quickly. As you see in the film, the Labor Party, helped me find my own voice. I was welcomed there, and I integrated myself there. We’d welcome anyone who is kicked out here in the US.
Q: Do you want to go into politics?
IO: No, I’m fine with what I’m doing. I’m better off without dirty politicians and want to keep going with my campaign, being a voice for the women.
MM: She’s being very modest, though. People are people advocating for Ifrah as president!
Q: What do you want people to do after seeing your film?
MM: What the film was intended to be, was a celebration to the power of testimony. What happens when a young woman stands up, speaks out, and has the courage to stand up and tell her truth. It’s a healing to trauma, but also a trial for change. It intended to be that kind of inspiration, and if it has been that, please: stand up and speak your truth.
Q: And, Barkhad, what about you? What do you want people to take away from seeing the film?
BA: Whenever I watch this movie it’s hard for me not to cry… I’m not the type who cries in movies, but honestly, it’s very powerful, Mary did such an amazing job on it. I hope people can understand what FGM is, and do whatever they can to help it. If a lot of people don’t know how to start, what they can do is talk, like on social media, spread the word, whatever you can do.
Q: Finally, what do you want people to take away from the film? How do you want people to get involved?
IO: I don’t want people to see me as a victim. I am not a victim; I am the voice. I want people to see here, this strong woman who is making a difference. We have the Ifrah Foundation, and people can support it. When people think support, they just think money, but there are so many different ways to support. Send messages, talk to people, it helps; it brings the message out. I hope being in New York makes a difference so we can go to the next level, so people don’t see this as just one woman, a victim, that this is their culture. It’s everybody’s business. Your neighbor’s daughter can be one of the girls at risk, friends of your daughter at school at risk. I believe for all of us, it’s a role to play, raising awareness.
(C) Beatrice Viri (7/28/19) FF2 Media
Photos: Copyright Seamus Murphy for Pembridge Film Productions
Top Photo: taken by Jan Lisa Huttner at IFC Center