Review: ‘A Girl From Mogadishu,’ starring Aja Naomi King

July 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

“A Girl From Mogadishu” 

Directed by Mary McGuckian

English and Somalian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Somalia and Ireland, the drama “A Girl From Mogadishu” (based on a true story) has a racially diverse cast (white and black) representing Somalian natives and refugees and Irish politicians and social workers.

Culture Clash:  Ifrah Ahmed escapes war-torn Somalia for a life in Ireland, where she becomes a social activist campaigning to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Culture Audience: “A Girl From Mogadishu” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about social justice issues and immigrants who overcome difficult challenges.

Barkhad Abdi and Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

The dramatic film “A Girl From Mogadishu” (written and directed by Mary McGuckian) takes on two very difficult subjects—war-torn Somalia and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)—and tells the story from the perspective of someone who’s experienced both in real life. The movie is a biography of Ifrah Ahmed, who fled Somalia when she was 15. She ended up in Ireland, and became a leading activist in a campaign to outlaw FGM, which has been a forced ritual (mostly inflicted on underage girls) in African cultures for centuries.

Aja Naomi King (who is American) gives a compelling performance as Ifrah, from the ages of 15 to her 20s. The entire movie has her voiceover narration, which works well in some scenes, but doesn’t work in others. The movie begins on December 28, 2006, with Ifrah running for her life on the day that’s known as the Fall of Mogadishu, when the militaries of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops invaded the Somali capital.

Ifrah becomes separated from her family (her grandmother, her father and her brother) after the military raided the family home. She ends up in an empty house, where three military soldiers rape her. Ifrah has an aunt who lives in Minnesota, so Ifrah thinks her best chance for a life outside of Somalia is to go to the United States to live with her aunt.

Ifrah boards a bus to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, she plans to go to the United States. But she has a close call in Addis Ababa when she finds out that she boarded the wrong bus, which is controlled by a sex trafficker.

She runs away from the wrong bus and boards another bus, which leads her to a family with a son named Hassan (played by Barkhad Abdi), who tells Ifrah that he can take her to the United States. The movie doesn’t make it clear how Ifrah was able to pay for this service, since it’s obvious that Hassan isn’t going to all this trouble out of the goodness of his own heart. This missing detail is an example of one of the flaws in this movie’s screenplay.

Hassan provides Ifrah with a passport and specific instructions to follow him and imitate what he does when they’re at the airport. It’s the first time that Ifrah ever gets on an escalator and goes on an airplane, so she’s understandably terrified. But when Ifrah and Hassan leave Ethiopia, they don’t arrive in the United States. They arrive in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin instead.

Ifrah is angry and confused over why Hassan lied to her, but he explains that Ifrah cannot stay with her aunt in Minnesota because her aunt is not a legal immigrant in the United States. Hassan tells Ifrah that she can seek asylum in Ireland. And then he drops her off in the cold winter night at a Dublin Asylum Seekers’ Center with nothing more than a note written in English with her name and why she needs asylum.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, Ifrah is put into a group home called Ashton House and is placed under the care of social workers. She experiences major culture shock, not only because she can’t speak English but also because she has difficulty adjusting to the type of food that’s eaten in Ireland. In one scene, when a male social worker laughs at how Ifrah eats a bowl of cornflakes with her bare hands, she gets irritated and throws a shoe at him.

Ifrah is reprimanded, but she is able to communicate with the social worker that what she’s really frustrated about is not being able to speak English. With the help of a Somalian translator at Ashton House, Ifrah is able to better communicate with the staff. Ifrah has also become friends with another Somalian refugee at Ashton House. Her new friend is Amala (played by Martha Canga Antonio), and they both help each other learn English.

Ifrah’s life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when she has her first medical exam in Ireland. The doctors are shocked to find out about her FGM. At first, Ifrah mistakenly thinks that their horrified reaction is because they think she’s HIV-positive. The doctors tell her she’s not HIV-positive and that they’re upset by the mutilation of her genital area. Ifrah replies, “This is my culture.”

However, when Ifrah figures out that FGM is not normal and is a major stigma in cultures outside of Africa, she’s overwhelmed by shame and starts sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing you know, there’s a flash forward to Ifrah as an anti-FGM activist giving a speech to a group of politicians. This sudden flash-forward scene is a little jarring and an example of better editing choices that director McGuckian could have made, since the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t always transition smoothly.

The rest of the movie shows Ifrah’s anti-FGM activism and the increased progress and media attention that she and her allies received for this issue. With the help of Ireland’s Labour Party politicians Emer Costello (played by Orla Brady) and her husband Joe Costello (played by Stanley Townsend), Ifrah was able to get FGM outlawed in Ireland. And, accompanied by a NGO (non-governmental organization) rep (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), Ifrah travels to Africa to further her cause to get FGM banned.

The movie also depicts how Ifrah eventually opened up and went public with all the harrowing details of what happened to her during her FGM torture. She was mutilated at 8 years old with several other girls, and they were tied up for 40 days with a very limited ability to urinate. One of the girls got a urinary tract infection and died.

There’s a scene where Ifrah goes back to Somalia to confront her grandmother for allowing the FGM to happen to Ifrah. Hassan pops up out of nowhere and tells Ifrah, “Good girls keep things private and don’t talk.” Ifrah replies defiantly, “I will not be silenced! Not now, not ever, not even for my family!”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” has an important story to tell, but there are some flaws in how it’s told. The dialogue and narration are often simplistic and predictable. And the movie needed better editing, so that the story didn’t seem so choppy and jumbled during the flashback and flash-forward scenes. However, the acting, especially from King in the lead role, elevates the often-trite screenplay. Her performance is worth watching, even if she has to say a lot of lines that could have been written better.

The production design (by Emma Pucci) and costume design (by Nathalie Leborgne) complement the movie very well. For example, the film does a convincing recreation of Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Ireland, with Ifrah among the thousands of people who went to see him give an outdoor speech in Dublin. Ifrah is also involved in doing fashion shows to raise money for her cause. Those fashion shows are depicted quite nicely in the film.

There are many scenes in “A Girl From Mogadishu” that look like a made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Despite its flaws, “A Girl From Mogadishu” has emotional authenticity and respect for the traumatic subject matter (the real Ifrah Ahmed was a consultant for the movie), considering that FGM is rarely acknowledged in narrative feature films. This movie will help make people more aware that trying to stop FGM is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s also about human rights.

Showtime Women premiered “A Girl From Mogadishu” on July 15, 2020, and the movie is available on Showtime’s on-demand platforms. Pembridge Pictures will release the film internationally from November 25, 2020 to December 10, 2020.

2019 51Fest: Women in the World teams up with IFC Center for inaugural female-focused film festival

July 17, 2019

by Carla Hay

Kathy Griffin in “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” (Photo by Tanne Willow)

In the United States, women make up 51 percent of the population and at least half of all moviegoers. With that in mind, the feminist organization Women in the World and the independent arthouse cineplex IFC Center in New York City have teamed up for the inaugural 51Fest, a film festival aimed at promoting movies about women. All of the selected projects have at least one female producer or a female director. The event takes place July 18 to July 21, 2019. All of the screenings will be held at IFC Center, except for “Kathy Griffin: Hell of a Story,” which will take place at the SVA Theatre. Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director(s) and/or stars from the movie.

Most of the movies in the first 51Fest  lineup have already had their world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival or South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, but there are a few offerings that will have their world premieres at 51Fest: The first episode of the Netflix limited series “Unbelieable,” a drama starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever, as well as the Netflix comedy film “Otherhood,” starring Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette and Felicity Huffman.

Here is the lineup of programming for the inaugural 51Fest:

Opening Night

“Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story”

Thursday, July 18, 7:30 p.m. at SVA Theatre

Controversial comedian Kathy Griffin self-financed this documentary, which chronicles her comeback tour after being blackballed from most of the entertainment industry on the 2017 fallout from posing  for a photo holding a fake, bloody head of Donald Trump. “Kathy Griffin: A  Hell of a Story” got mostly positive reviews after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. It’s scheduled to be released nationwide by Fathom Events for a one-night-only screening on July 31, 2019.

106 minutes. Directed by Troy Miller. A Brainstorm Media release in partnership with Fathom.

Post-screening conversation with Kathy Griffin and Tina Brown.

 

Special Event

Women in the World Spotlight: Supermajority

Friday, July 19, 7 p.m. at IFC Center

Women in the World co-founder Tina Brown (who also founded The Daily Beast) will have a  conversation with former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and Ai-jen Poo, the co-founders (along with Alicia Garza) of Supermajority, an activist organization aimed at empowering women. According to a description on the 51Fest website, “the conversation will be introduced by filmmaker Yoruba Richen with an exclusive clip of the forthcoming documentary ‘And She Could Be Next,’ about a movement of women of color claiming political power.”

Yoruba Richen

Screenings

(In alphabetical order)

“After the Wedding”

Saturday, July 20, 8:30 p.m. at IFC Center

Isabel (played by Michelle Williams) has dedicated her life to working with the children in an orphanage in Calcutta. Theresa (played by Julianne Moore) is the multimillionaire head of a media company who lives with her artist husband (played by Billy Crudup) and their twin boys in New York. When word comes to Isabel of a mysterious and generous grant for the financially struggling orphanage, she must travel to New York to meet the benefactor—Theresa—in person. After premiering at Sundance, “After the Wedding” (a remake of the 2006 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier)  makes its New York premiere at 51Fest. The movie is set for release in select U.S. theaters on August 9, 2019.

110 minutes. Directed by Bart Freundlich. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Post-screening conversation with producer and star Julianne Moore and Tina Brown.

 

“Brittany Runs a Marathon”

Saturday, July 20, 2:45 p.m. at IFC Center

Winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, this  comedy was inspired by real events. The irresistible cast, led by Jillian Bell, lends heart and soul to this inspirational story of a party girl who finally finds real friends — and dignity — by taking control of her future, one city block at a time. At 27, her hard-partying ways, chronic underemployment and toxic relationships are catching up with her, but when she stops by a new doctor’s office to try to score some Adderall, she gets slapped with a prescription she never wanted: Get healthy. Too broke for a gym and too proud to ask for help, Brit is at a loss, until her seemingly together neighbor Catherine pushes her to lace up her Converse sneakers and run one sweaty block. The next day, she runs two. And soon, after finishing her first mile, she sets an almost unthinkable goal: running in the New York City Marathon. After its New York premiere at 51Fest, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” will be released in select U.S. theaters on August 23, 2019.

103 minutes. Directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo. An Amazon Studios release.

Post-screening conversation with real-life subject Brittany O’Neill and Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR’s “Tell Me Another”

 

“For Sama”

Sunday, July 21, 12 p.m. at IFC Center

After winning awards at the SXSW Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, the documentary “For Sama” makes its New York debut at 51Fest. “For Sama” is both an intimate and epic journey into the female experience of war. A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while cataclysmic conflict rises around her. Her camera captures incredible stories of loss, laughter and survival as Waad wrestles with an impossible choice–whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom for which she has already sacrificed so much. The film is the first feature documentary by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. “For Sama” will be released in select U.S. theaters on July 26, 2019, before premiering on the PBS show “Frontline.”

95 minutes. Directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. A PBS Distribution/Frontline release.

After the screening, filmmakers Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts and subject Dr. Hamza al-Kateab will be interviewed by Anne Barnard, who led coverage of the war in Syria for the New York Times from 2012 to 2018, as Beirut bureau chief.

 

“A Girl From Mogadishu”

Sunday, July 21, 5:15 p.m. at IFC Center

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” is a drama is real-life-inspired story about the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM), based on the testimony of an Irish-Somali campaigner (played by Aja Naomi King).  The film opens with a harrowing escape, as 17-year-old Ifrah Ahmed flees war-torn Somalia, evading smugglers and traffickers to seek asylum in Ireland. When she returns to Somalia to confront her family about being an unwilling victim of FGM, she also is determined to save other young girls at risk of FGM. “A Girl From Mogadishu” has its North American premiere at 51Fest.

112 minutes. Directed by Mary McGuckian.

Post-screening discussion with writer-director Mary McGuckian, actor Barkhad Abdi, and real-life subject Ifrah Ahmed, moderated by journalist Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani of Verizon Media

 

“Official Secrets” 

Saturday, July 20, 5:30 p.m. at IFC Center

She risked everything to stop an unjust war. Her government called her a traitor. Based on world-shaking true events, “Official Secrets” tells the gripping story of Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley), a British intelligence specialist whose job involves routine handling of classified information. One day in 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq War, Gun receives a memo from the NSA with a shocking directive: the United States is enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on United Nations Security Council members in order to blackmail them into voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Unable to stand by and watch the world be rushed into an illegal war, Gun makes the gut-wrenching decision to defy her government and leak the memo to the press. So begins an explosive chain of events that will ignite an international firestorm, expose a vast political conspiracy, and put Gun and her family directly in harm’s way. After its New York premiere at 51fest, “Official Secrets” will be released in select U.S. theaters on August 30, 2019.

112 minutes. Directed by Gavin Hood. An IFC Films release.

Post-screening conversation with real-life subject Katharine Gun, moderated by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen.

 

“Otherhood”

Sunday, July 21, 2:30 p.m. at IFC Center

51Fest is having a sneak preview of the comedy film “Otherhood.” Feeling marginalized and forgotten, longtime friends Carol (played Angela Bassett), Gillian (played by Patricia Arquette) and Helen (played Felicity Huffman) decide to drive to New York to reconnect with their adult sons, and in the process they realize their sons are not the only ones whose lives need to change. A journey to relate becomes a journey of rediscovery that forces these women to redefine their relationships with their children, friends, spouses and most importantly, themselves. Netflix will premiere “Otherhood” on August 2, 2019.

Post-screening discussion with director Cindy Chupack and producers Cathy Schulman and Jason Michael Berman.

100 minutes. Directed by Cindy Chupack. A Netflix release.

 

“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”

Saturday, July 20, 12 p.m. at IFC Center

This documentary about the late columnist/writer Molly Ivins got rave reviews after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and the movie has its New York premiere at 51Fest. At 6 feet tall, the politically outspoken Ivins was a force to be reckoned with in expressing her liberal viewpoints. The film also includes her battles with alcoholism and breast cancer, the latter of which took her life in 2007. Featuring interviews with Ivins’ friends and former colleagues, “Raise Hell” gives an in-depth look at her life and her lasting legacy. Magnolia Pictures will release “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” in Texas on August 30, 2019, and in New York City and Los Angeles on September 6, 2019.

93 minutes. Directed by Janice Engel. A Magnolia Pictures release.

Post-screening conversation with director Janice Engel along with friends and admirers of Molly Ivins.

 

“Unbelievable”

Friday, July 19, 8:30 p.m. at IFC Center

When teenager Marie Adler (played Kaitlyn Dever) files a police report claiming an intruder sexually assaulted her in her home, several people begin to doubt her story. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (played Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) are investigating a case that is similar to what Marie has reported. The limited drama series “Unbelievable,” whose first episode will have its world premiere at 51Fest, is inspired by the real events in The Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, and the “This American Life” radio episode “Anatomy of Doubt.” Netflix will premiere “Unbelievable” on September 13, 2019.

60 min. Episode directed by Lisa Cholodenko. A Netflix release.

Post-screening conversation with showrunner and executive producer Susannah Grant, executive producer Sarah Timberman, executive producer and episode director Lisa Cholodenko, and actors Kaitlyn Dever, Danielle Macdonald and Merritt Wever. 

 

“Untouchable”

Sunday, July 21st, 8:15 p.m. at IFC Center

This documentary chronicles the downfall of former entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein because of sexual abuse allegations. Although stories about Weinstein being a sexual predator had been circulating in the industry for decades, he wasn’t fully exposed until 2017, when the New York Times and the New Yorker published articles that had several famous women (including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino) telling their stories of being sexually harassed by Weinstein. The articles are considered the catalyst for the #MeToo movement. This documentary, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, includes interviews with Weinstein accusers Rosanna Arquette, Hope D’Amore, Paz de la Huerta, Erika Rosenbaum, and others. After its New York premiere at 51Fest, “Untouchable” will premiere on Hulu on September 2, 2019.

98 minutes. Directed by Ursula Macfarlane. A Hulu release.

Post-screening conversation with director Ursula Macfarlane and subjects Hope D’Amore and Erika Rosenbaum.