– CANNES 2021: Finnish-based director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed announces himself as a director to watch with this tender portrait of an African couple facing a health crisis
Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi in The Gravedigger’s Wife
Showing in the Cannes Critics’ Week, The Gravedigger’s Wife [+see also:
film profile], the debut film by Finnish-based director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, is a wondrous, multi-textured tale set in Djibouti. It uses a beautiful love story to talk about the health crisis in Africa and the position of the matriarch in Islam, with a subtext on how the African continent is the forgotten part of the globalised world.
Ahmed echoes Senegalese master filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in the way he talks about great themes by using a deceptively simple plot. Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger, an essential but not-so-well-respected job that requires someone to die in order for him to make a living. The macabre nature of the work is apparent as the gravediggers wait for the bereaved outside hospitals, knowing that Islamic tradition requires a body to be buried as soon as possible after death. It’s a taxing job, but not one that you can earn a great living from. He lives with his wife, Nasra (supermodel Yasmin Warsame), on the outskirts of Djibouti City in a poor part of town. They have a son, who is always out, avoiding his parents in the way that teenagers generally do.
If Ahmed is a muted, quiet soul, his wife is the life of the party. In a terrific introduction, Nasra gatecrashes a wedding using her wiles and a wild goat (animals appear constantly throughout the film). The couple has a great time, with lots of singing and dancing. So it’s all the more heartbreaking to discover that Nasra needs an operation to save her life, and Guled has to find $5,000 to pay for it. In the tradition of great filmmakers, Ahmed doesn’t hammer home the point that it’s a sum of money that wouldn’t be a problem in the West but is sufficient to throw the hospital, as well as the family, into a state of panic. The audience is left to use their own judgement to decide whether the health situation is right or not, as Guled, against his wife’s wishes, embarks on a journey to his mother’s village to ask her for money. The reason for her reluctance will become apparent when we meet this stubborn character.
The journey through the desert sees cinematographer Arttu Peltomaa change his lenses and framing to go from the closed mid-framing of the city to more wide shots. In this way, the contrast between the modern and the traditional is a visual phenomenon that is integrated into the narrative plot. It’s effective filmmaking that takes a less-is-more approach to dialogue and exposition to create and retain mystery. The side story sees the couple’s son rise to the challenge of taking on more family responsibility, helping his ailing mother while his father is away.
There is also a ticking-clock element to the feature. The family has a deadline by which to get the money to the hospital or face the fatal consequences. Much like the approach of the Dardenne brothers at their best, Ahmed doesn’t try to use cinematic tricks to add to the already heightened tension, and the denouement cleverly makes connections to earlier events that didn’t even seem significant.
It’s also a film that keeps all the talk, action, solutions, dreams and music rooted in Africa. Despite it being a European co-production, Ahmed offers a movie that challenges the traditional European cinematic gaze on Africa.
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