Film Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent
‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’ (Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, Somalia, Germany, France and Finland, 2021)
Khalid Ali’s choice for the best film of 2021, and Somalia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards in 2022
An illness does not affect a sick person only; it affects the whole family. The tagline for ‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’: “the deeper the love, the greater the sacrifices’’ encapsulates the positive impact a supportive family can have on the well-being of a gravely ill person. Living in the deprived outskirts of Djibouti, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), the loving wife of Guled (Omar Abdi) and mother to their teenage son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim), is in urgent need for an expensive $5,000 operation for a kidney abscess. Repeated courses of antibiotics have not cured her, and the excruciating pain has become unbearable. Guled’s meagre earnings as a gravedigger can hardly meet the family’s basic needs. Guled and fellow gravediggers hang around hospitals waiting for patients to die so that they can make some money. Chasing ambulances to receive a dead body is a grilling routine for these unfortunate souls. The threat of Nasra’s imminent death forces Guled to go back to his long-estranged family and seek their financial support. The unbearable close proximity of life and death makes Guled appreciate life’s transience, and the value of every precious minute, and so does Nasra; their mischievous gate-crashing a party to capture a few moments of joy dancing is a testament to their resilience. Nasra and Guled are elegantly portrayed as free kindred spirits who fought for their love by escaping their families’ dominance.
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The intricate relationship between the ability to afford healthcare and health outcomes for economically disadvantaged people is a global challenge. Several layers of social injustice in Somalia are illustrated through Nasra, Guled and Mahad’s plight with the utmost of compassion and respect shown by the film director. Mahad is trying to help by dropping out of school, and cleaning cars to pay for his mother’s operation. The father-son relationship is a parable told with dignity despite the entanglements of shame and guilt felt by both. Guled is illiterate and hence keen for his son to be educated to escape the misery of being a manual labourer. Angry conversations of Guled urging Mahad to return to school, while Mahad wants to become a responsible grown-up are reminiscent of heartrending moments between Antonio and Bruno in the 1948 classic Italian neorealist film ‘Bicycle Thieves’, Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece.
The role of healthcare professionals as informed members of the community is represented by Dr Yahya (Fardouza Moussa Egueh) who is not oblivious to the harsh reality of poverty, and trying her best to support Nasra, Guled and Mahad according to their individual needs. Dr Yahya is a doctor, a counsellor and a friend who genuinely cares for this unfortunate family. Friendship and support shines through the gravediggers’ community as well; Guled helps his friend Ali (Samaleh Ali Obsieh) declaring his love to the local coffee shop hostess Zahra (Awa Ali Nour). The grinding reality of everyday life can sometimes be made less traumatic by simple acts of love and friendship.
‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’ message of ‘love triumph over adversity’ connected with an international audience; the film premièred at the International Critics’ Week at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and later toured several prestigious festivals including London and Toronto. Nasra and Guled separately recounting how they first met and fell in love is a tender moment capturing the essence of ‘love as the greatest healer’.