Young Somali refugees make films about love, not war

A member of the refugee Somali film industry pictured on May 4 at the production studio in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi. The filmmakers aim to show a different side of their country. Tony Karumba / Agence France-Presse

Love-struck teenagers, angry parents, rowing couples: Somali youth tired of seeing their homeland portrayed as a war-torn famine zone have started making films to show a different side to their country.

“The world knows Somalia for war,” said Adirahman Ali Suge, a 19-year-old writer and film director, part of a group of refugee Somali filmmakers in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “But we have love stories and drama to tell, too.”

Several films have been made so far, along with a few soap operas. They are either in Somali, English or Swahili – the main language of east Africa – and net a few thousand dollars in profits at most.

The shoe-string budget films of Eastleighwood, named after Nairobi’s bustling Somali district, is a world away from Hollywood, India’s Bollywood or Nigeria’s Nollywood, Africa’s biggest film industry.

In central Africa, Nollywood movies are the only ones sold by market vendors as “African movies”, with the Nigerian productions dubbed into French in countries such as Cameroon and Gabon.

In Kenya, Nigerian films are also a hit – many of them broadcast on terrestrial networks – but face competition from Bollywood due to a historically large Indian population.

However, Suge, who fled Somalia as a child shortly after the start of civil war in 1991, which continues today, sees the similarities.

“I like to watch Bollywood movies, with all their singing and dancing, and that is in our films, too,” he said, speaking as actors rehearsed the latest drama, set in a small shop plastered with posters of Indian movie stars.

“In Somali culture, when a man and women love each other, they sing to each other,” he added. “Love is something all over the world: we have it, they have it, so you really shouldn’t be surprised.”

The aim is to portray a “normal” Somalia, rather than the usual television footage dominated by war, rebels and hunger.

Cameraman Abuker Yusuf cites the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down – the story of the 1993 battle between US troop and Somali fighters in the capital, Mogadishu.

“Of course there is fighting in Somalia, that is true,” said Yusuf, aged 24, who fled Mogadishu for Ethiopia a decade ago, before later moving to Kenya. “But the films show normal life too, our daily lives.”

Somalia’s war is far from over – regional armies are battling al-Qaida-allied Shebab insurgents, while aid agencies fear a slip back to catastrophic humanitarian crisis that saw famine zones declared in several regions last year.

But Martin Gumba, a Kenyan director who in 2010 helped set up the youth groups to make films and act, believes the fledgling industry is important to help young people to look toward a more peaceful future.

“People need a platform to tell their own story, to allow their hopes and dreams,” Gumba said. “Mainstream media is not a fair representation … you hardly ever see Somalia images unless it is of conflict, hunger or piracy.”

But the filmmakers have to be careful. While hardline Shebab appear to be on the backfoot militarily, the extremists remain influential and have outlawed the watching of films and football, as well as clamping down on non-religious music.

Films are screened in public in Eastleigh, before being sold on DVDs, with some copies of the movies being taken back to Mogadishu following the Shebab’s pullout from fixed positions there last year.

“There have been private screenings in Mogadishu, but small ones because people still fear Shebab,” said Gumba. “Some people don’t like it and you have to be careful … but it is the voice of a people showing the better side of their country.”

Sales of the DVDs are raising money for Eastleighwood’s first feature length film, which is currently in the planning stages, with filming hoped to start later this year.

The planned film, titled Green Oasis, revolves around a family hit by drought and conflict and how they are forced to migrate.

The hoped-for budget is a stunning 100 million Kenyan shillings ($1.19 million) and its backers hope to raise the money from private financiers and film institutes.

Some of the Somali films have been broadcast on Kenyan television stations but profits in general are held back by a different form of problem, which Somalia has become infamous for in the outside world: piracy.

“It is a big issue,” Gumba said, adding that pirated copies of the films circulate a week after the films are released.

Filming is done in Eastleigh’s muddy streets amid the crowded high-rise buildings here, with actors weaving in and out of the crowds at the street markets selling fried spicy snacks, heaps of bananas and piles of melons.

“The people here look Somali, they are Somali,” said actress Hibo Abdi, waving at the women on the crowded pavements.

“Conflict is the background, but the story is of life.”

Agence France-Presse