THE REMARKABLE story of Ifrah Ahmed is told in A Girl From Mogadishu, a drama which tells of the extraordinary events that brought her to Ireland. Trafficked here as a minor as civil war raged in Somalia, her country of birth, Ahmed had never heard of Ireland and believed she was travelling to an aunt in Minnesota until she reached her destination. She arrived here alone, without a word of English, made the country her home and became a global campaigner to end female genital mutilation.
For US actress Aja Naomi King, hearing of Ahmed’s story after reading filmmaker Mary McGuckian’s script made signing up for the project a no-brainer.
“To be smuggled out of war-torn Somalia and end up in Ireland, a refugee seeking asylum, needing to learn the language and customs, and with that learning how to tell your story and in the process championing other women to join you and tell their own stories. Learning the power of your own voice. I think it’s every actor’s dream to be able to portray someone who has had such impact on the world,” she says.
Mary McGuckian’s feature details the journey itself in all its peril and the enormous cultural differences the teenager faced. Trafficked by strangers, at one point she pauses before getting on an escalator for the first time, unsure how to proceed. In another scene, she breaks down in tears of relief after meeting another Somali days after arrival, finally finding a peer who understands her and what she has escaped.
The film also tells how Ahmed had to come to terms with the fact she was badly harmed as a child due to the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation), common in this region of Africa, during a medical examination conducted when she arrives to Ireland. It was one of the elements of her story that made the actress feel a sense of responsibility in her portrayal.
“This isn’t a character that you are making up in your head, it’s not your own creation. A living person, especially a woman like Ifrah, deserves to be honoured, and the best way to honour her is to attempt to capture the essence of her spirit and the depth of her conviction with all that she has had to face as earnestly as possible. Ifrah was also present each day on set, which allowed me to continue my study of her and her behaviour, as well as get to understand her as a woman, and understand not only how she views herself but also the world around her.” The two women clicked instantly when they were introduced by McGuckian in the US.
King says she was nervous and didn’t know what to expect when they first met, and assumed Ahmed would be a serious person because of what she had experienced and what she was trying to achieve in her campaigning work.
“Instead she was this very bubbly and very funny woman,” says the star of How to Get Away With Murder and The Birth of a Nation. “She loved talking about all things from fashion and make up to the various places she had travelled campaigning against FGM.
“In one sentence we could be discussing football and then she would flip to her desire to accurately account for the number of deaths that occur due to FGM. She had such a fullness of spirit, she was such a happy person and I was struck by her joy and lightheartedness in the midst of her devotion to this cause. She really embodied for me in that conversation that people don’t have to be the sum total of every negative thing that has ever occurred in their lives, that we can always be more.”
King, says the film’s director Mary McGuckian, went to great lengths in research and preparation to play the campaigner, even learning to speak Somali, the language spoken in many of the film’s key scenes. “Aja was phenomenally technically well trained, and she prepared for months for this role. Aja had been very, very taken by the script. And she is somebody who works in Black Lives Matter. She's an activist in her own right.”
McGuckian says she put a great deal of thought into how the scene where FGM is carried out was portrayed. On the one hand, she didn’t want to sensationalise but on the other, she didn’t want to back away from such an important issue. In the end, she found her solutions in Ahmed’s own accounts and testimonies.
“It had to be really thought about,” she agrees. “People do not go looking to look at documentaries about FGM. Even the thought of it is horrific. It had to be about really understanding the language around FGM. Ifrah has developed phenomenal language - she doesn't talk about being a victim. She's a survivor.
“She uses her story with the power to heal. And so the film in the end to me became about the power of testimony. How she managed to channel that traumatic experience into a healing experience in a way by telling her story in order to move people and in order to bring awareness to the project. That's how the story of what happened to her is told, in her own words.”
McGuckian’s filmmaking career includes movies such as Best, the George Best biopic, The Price of Desire, a drama about the work of Eileen Gray, and historical drama The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
But she is currently developing her first TV series. It’s a process she has greatly enjoyed but also a reflection of the changing landscape in how people watch and tell stories on screen, she says.
“The reality is the film industry I grew up in is over. Not just the way we make films, but the way we put films together, the distribution. I suppose over the last 10 years, what most of us have discovered is, unless you're making a huge studio movie, or a very tiny budget movie, the commercial reality of the mid-range films, the independent kind of films I've been making, just are not makeable anymore.
“And it's just the nature of it but what is makeable and what there seems to be a market for, and it's what the audiences want to watch, is episodic content. I've enjoyed getting into that world and it's very different to trying to confine a story to 90 minutes. It's a very different process and it's been really enjoyable getting into it.”