The Gravedigger’s Wife
(Bufo, Twenty Twenty Vision, Pyramide Productions, 2021)
Having premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021), a Finnish-Somali film, was also presented at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival (Amplify Voices Award winner), 2022 Glasgow Film Festival, and several other venues. The Gravedigger’s Wife received nine nominations at the Finnish National Film Awards and won Best Film at the 2021 Africa Movie Academy Awards and the 27th edition of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Fespaco)—Africa’s top prize—totaling 20 nominations and 21 awards at the various festivals it was competing in.
It comes as a surprise and regret then, that despite also being Somalia’s first ever submission to the Academy Awards, the film was snubbed in the final shortlist for this year (no films from Africa were shortlisted). From sub-Saharan Africa, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) was nominated for Best International Feature Film back in 2014. A long time ago. “Finnish cinema is so white,” said Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, director of The Gravedigger’s Wife. Especially given that #OscarsSoWhite, created to fight for much-needed diversity and social justice among the Academy’s nominations, wasn’t too long ago. Beyond ethnic and racial representation on screens, failure to acknowledge critically appraised films raises the issues of dominant narratives in creative industries. Overlooking The Gravedigger’s Wife is yet another missed opportunity for the Oscars, which could have made history by offering a stage to new, crucial voices.
A Mogadishu-born filmmaker, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed interrogates power, the white gaze, and the emotional cost of inequity in The Gravedigger’s Wife. The film is based on a sudden death in his family a decade ago. “Everything is always about war or human trafficking, all these one-dimensional, stereotypical images one can imagine,” he said in an interview with Variety. Wanting to challenge those clichés, he places his story under the sign of unquenched, self-affirming love conveyed in the Somali language in the hope of inspiring other filmmakers and artists of color from the continent to share stories that defy common tropes and clichés.
I have visited Djibouti many times over the past decade. The first thing you see when approaching Djibouti-Ambouli international airport from the sky is the multitude of urban slums and their glare reverberating under an unforgiving sun. They shine and stand in sharp contrast with the dull, sand-camouflaged opulence of foreign military bases and assets in and around the tarmac. As the plane descends further to land in this strategic country located in the Horn of Africa, we finally distinguish silhouettes and human shapes—taxi drivers, fishermen, market sellers, and more.
These landscapes and people populate The Gravedigger’s Wife. The film follows a family of three, Guled (Omar Abdi), his wife Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), and their son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim). We enter one of the corrugated-iron shacks familiar from the air early into the film. The family sleeps in one room. Their living conditions are modest: a bed, a table, dirt. We quickly learn that Nasra is sick and that the family isn’t earning enough to cover the medical bills.
Guled’s income is derived from daily work. He waits with other gravediggers outside a hospital. Camaraderie keeps them close during moments that can amount to a long, unrewarded wait in the scorching heat. “We have been here all day and nobody’s dying,” one of the gravediggers says. Somebody’s misfortune is someone else’s luck, and vice versa.
Guled knows he needs to look for money elsewhere; his earnings aren’t enough and his wife’s health is only worsening. Guled’s honesty—working additional jobs, borrowing money from friends—leads him nowhere, yet his sense of integrity prevents him from slipping into illegal activities. He’s not ready to harm others for the benefit of his own family. What other options are there?
The movie touches upon issues of rising inequality and the state’s failure to provide basic services to its population most in need. Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was re-elected with 97% of casted votes in 2021. He has been in power since 1999. Over twenty percent of Djibouti's one million people live under extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the aid industry operating in the country seems to first worry about self-preservation. We see this when Guled is walking barefoot while expensive white cars, presumed to belong to employees of NGOs and international organizations, pass him, leaving a trail of dust behind.
This sense of abandonment permeates the film through other aspects. The notion of solidarity disappears when Guled asks for a tip and is visibly humiliated by a stingy customer in a marketplace. People he encounters are unable or unwilling to help. Meanwhile, Guled and Nasra’s dreams for social elevation via education feel like a naïve mirage, like when Mahad skips school, revealing his disdain for, as well as his frustration and disillusionment with, education. During Guled’s journey back to his village, desiccated animal carcasses and scorched earth preface the kind of accelerated, climate-crisis-induced habitat this vulnerable country will continue to become, hinting that few public investments have been directed towards a viable future. At first, we feel that hopelessness steeps through any possibility of change; moments later, we sense that through Guled’s determination, the filmmaker wants us to object, challenge and rise above necessity and hostile situations to imagine a different life, a different outcome. In a society that doesn’t provide much, self-help is all the help there is.
The film dissects masculinity with sensitivity and care. Guled shows the incongruity of love and the difficult exigency to remain lucid while confronting inadequacy. On the one hand, Guled’s unfaltering love elevates him. His resolution to save Nasra is one that can’t be shaken. He decides to return to his home village, forcing himself to navigate moral dilemmas and the legacy of broken family bonds. But his love for Nasra is also alienating; it has cost him his family and tribe, which no longer recognize Guled as one of them. Guled feels he’s equally failing as a father and a husband: “I hunt dead bodies for a living. I have a son I can’t be an example for, my family hates me the most in the world. I try to stay sane.”
The film explores family dynamics without sacrificing individual depth and struggle. The family has a collective journey to accomplish—to save Nasra—which can only happen once they each overcome their inner arcs. As such, each member of the family carries their own burden—for Mahad, it’s his parents’ expectations, for Guled, his role as a breadwinner, and for Nasra, the impossibility to nurture others while enduring the severity of her intensifying pain.
The allegory of the journey is well captured in Guled’s physically-grueling return to his home village. The stakes then are also about transcendence and personal redemption. Guled has and continues to choose love, Nasra, even when tested. Young Mahad learns the notion of responsibility; he stays by his mother’s side, reduces time spent with his friends, and finds ways to support the needs of the family. Nasra wants to be more than the limitations to which her body confines her, trying her best not to let sickness define her.
The superb performances in The Gravedigger’s Wife match the ambition of the film. The poetic, mineral chemistry between Yasmine Warsame’s Nasra and Omar Abdi’s sweeping Guled convincingly convey intimacy and modesty. We see enough of their interaction to feel empathy for their sensibility and commiserate with their desire to survive and thrive without peering into voyeurism.
The film’s atmospheric cinematography by Arttu Peltomaa adds a welcomed nuance and depth to the physical incarnation of poverty in Djibouti’s urban slums. Abandoned train tracks suggest the paradoxical possibility of an elsewhere and an impasse. It’s where Guled needs to face his hopeless situation as Mahad plays cowboys and Indians between the tracks: “Your mother is dying,” he tells his son. “I don’t have the money to save her. Take care of your mother,” he says in an emotional parting with his son.
In this decrepit scenery, Guled and Nasra’s love channels an aesthetic act of resistance. The film’s play with color is pure aesthetic delight. Lighting shifts from viridian green in nighttime settings outside, to warm hues in the tender and humble one-room family home. We note more of this visual contrast in a scene where Guled enters a downtown money changer. Guled basks in green, against the golden and sunrise colors framing the arcades of Djibouti-ville. This provides a sense of space, impending action, and differentiation—it whispers to us that he doesn’t belong there.
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed invites us to lean in, inspect these multilayered lives, and, while doing so, strip our gaze from indifference. The Gravedigger’s Wife tells a story of love and injustice that asks us to consider what it truly means to hold on and stay strong in the face of adversity. Should we ever stop trying to save the ones we love?
“We’re going to achieve all that, inshallah,” Nasra tells Guled when they reminisce about their dream for better days. We hope for The Gravedigger’s Wife to do just that—to redefine our potential against institutional violence and injustice and remind us of the revolutionary power of love and humanity that feeds the expanse of new chapters yet to be written. For the Academy Awards to ignore such an important message, one that places people’s voices and agency at the center of a narrative without capitalizing on the pornography of war and poverty, makes their choice not to shortlist this film politically deaf and artistically limited.