The Gravedigger’s Wife
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed | Finland/Germany/France | 2021
2021 Cannes, Melbourne, Toronto, Helsinki, Hamburg, London, Chicago, Valladolid, Sydney
2022 San Francisco, Hong Kong, Glasgow
Somali-born film-maker Khadar Ayderus Ahmed (who lives and works in Finland, the country he came to as a refugee in his teen years) has had a deserved festival success with this debut feature, set in Djibouti. It’s a gentle, humorous film in Africa’s quietist cinema tradition with grace notes of irony and wit. Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger, who lives with his wife Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) and young son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim); he is in fact more like an itinerant labourer, hanging out with other gravediggers with their shovels over their shoulders, waiting for work; they occasionally even chase ambulances into the hospital forecourt, eagerly clustering round as the poor patient is carted out, hoping for the worst. But when his wife is diagnosed with a serious kidney illness, needing an emergency operation costing $5,000, Guled is struck with a sickening realisation, never explicitly spelled out, as to whose grave he might be digging next. The only conceivable way of getting the money is to trek back to his family in his remote home village, whom he deserted to run away with Nasra in the first place, to claim back his ‘share’ of the family goat herd and somehow get it back to the big city to sell.
– Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.
This debut feature from Khadar Ayderus Ahmed – which has a fable-like quality – is a sharp reminder that universal healthcare, rough around the edges though it might sometimes be, remains a triumph in the face of wider inequalities, allowing much fairer access for all than many global systems.
The situation is brought sharply home in the Finnish-Somalia writer/director’s film as Guled (Omar Abdi), who spends his time at the hospital gates waiting for the death of others, so that he can make ends meet, finds himself staring it straight in the face when his wife Nasra (model Yasmin Warsame, showing real skill in her acting debut) becomes sick with kidney disease and requires a $5,000 operation, which they cannot afford.
There’s a straightforwardness to the telling of this tale – which is Somalia’s Oscar nomination and screening at Glasgow Film Festival – that adds to its accessibility despite its strong sense of geographical place. Ahmed economically and warmly establishes the love between Guled and Nasra in a bathing scene and one in which they gatecrash a wedding with a particularly amusing technique, while injecting the fringes of their story with life and energy courtesy of their young son Mahad (Khadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim), as he runs about with his pack of pals.
As Nasra’s health worsens, Guled becomes increasingly desperate to help, which results in a lengthy pilgrimage back to the home village where, it is hinted before being spelled out, that a less than rapturous welcome awaits.
Ahmed keeps things simple, giving real strength to the bond between Guled and Nasra and using strong lighting design to shift emotions – with the honeyed glow of the interiors captured by Artuu Petomaa taking on a sickly green sheen as Nasra’s health worsens, although this does also give the indoor scenes a slightly stagey quality that doesn’t quite sit with the naturalism elsewhere. Outside their home, the dusty hardness of the environment is presented in a matter of fact manner that doesn’t labour the point. The story may not be complex but the point is, we care – an emotion, Ahmed suggests, is in short supply on the part of the Somalian authorities.
– Amber Wilkinson, Eye For Film, 04 March 2022.