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.

Review: ‘The Price of Desire,’ starring Orla Brady, Vincent Perez, Francesco Scianna and Alanis Morissette

June 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Francesco Scianna and Orla Brady in “The Price of Desire” (Photo by Julian Lennon)

“The Price of Desire”

Directed by Mary McGuckian

French and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in France from the 1920s to the 1970s, the drama “The Price of Desire” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of Irish architect Eileen Gray and her conflicts over sexism and E-1027, a modernist villa that she designed in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in the history of 20th century European modernist architecture.

Vincent Perez in “The Price of Desire” (Photo by Julian Lennon)

“The Price of Desire” sounds like it could be the name of a thriller about a crime of passion, but this slow-paced feature film (which is based on a true story) tells how Irish architect/interior designer Eileen Gray (who died in 1976, at the age of 98) was deprived of being credited for much of her work because of sexism in the industry. Written and directed by Mary McGuckian, “The Price of Desire” gets much of the production design correct,  but the movie’s turgid tempo might bore people who have absolutely no interest in the history of 20th century European architects.

A great deal of the movie’s cinematography from Stefan von Björn is over-filtered, giving it a dreamy look that movies often use for flashbacks or scenes where people are supposed to be experiencing a heavenly atmosphere. The story of “The Price of Desire” definitely takes place on Earth (France, to be more specific), but this lens filtering is at times distracting. And because Gray was known for her minimalist style, the costume design for the movie is a little too obvious about it, since almost everyone wears clothes in neutral colors, such as white, black, brown or gray.

“The Price of Desire” begins with the Christie’s auction in 2009 that famously sold Gray’s “Dragons” chair for €22 million, which set an auction record for a piece of 20th-century furniture. The movie then flashes back to an elderly and partially blind Eileen (played by Orla Brady) toward the end of her life in the mid-1970s. She is shown a photo of E-1027, a modernist villa that she designed and which was built from 1926 to 1929, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

This photo triggers her memories of the story behind E-1027, which is considered her first major architectural work and is now a French national monument. And those memories lead to the movie flashing back to how she met the man who became her lover and who was the muse for E-1027.

Jean Badovici (played by Francesco Scianna) was a Frenchman of Romanian descent who was 15 years younger than Eileen. He met her in 1926 to interview her for L’Architecture Vivante magazine. It’s clear that Jean is immediately attracted to and in awe of Eileen, but she’s somewhat resistant to his obvious interest. When she asks him if he’s a writer or a journalist, he tells her that he’s neither because he’s really an architect.

Eileen is bisexual, so Jean tactfully tries to find out from Eileen how much of her sexual preferences lean toward men. (Near the beginning of the film, Alanis Morissette has a cameo as singer Marisa Damia, one of Eileen’s lovers whose affair with Eileen is over by the time Eileen meets Jean.) Because Eileen and Jean share a passion for architecture and have a growing attraction to each other, they inevitably become lovers, and they soon decide to become work collaborators too.

Eileen tells Jean that she’s not interested in getting married to anyone and that she needs freedom to create and think. Jean tells Eileen, “You’re frittering away your talent on furniture. You’re 46 years old.”

Jean suggests that they design a house together. They name the white modernist villa E-1027, after the initials of their first and last names and where those letters are ranked in the alphabet.  “E” standing for Eileen, “10” stands for the “J” in Jean, “2” stands for the “B” in Badovici and “7” stands for the “G” in Gray.

But there’s one big problem: Perhaps in a “love is blind” decision, Eileen paid for the villa to be built and she gave Jean the house’s deed/title. Jean also took credit for designing the villa, which Eileen didn’t mind too much at first when their relationship was going well. They were live-in partners and his career began to thrive because of his association with Eileen, who is shown in the movie as being the brains behind his designs. But then, Eileen caught Jean cheating on her, and they had a bitter breakup not long after the house was completed in 1929.

By the time the breakup happened, Jean had become a close friend Swiss-French architect/artist Le Corbusier (played by Vincent Perez), who had become a titan of the industry as one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Le Corbusier (whose real name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) has a sexist attitude toward women in architecture, so he and Eileen inevitably end up having conflicts with each other, even though she says in the movie she remains a “passionate admirer” of Le Corbusier.

Adding insult to injury, after Eileen moved out of E-1027, Le Corbusier painted the walls with several colorful murals, which clashed with the villa’s white palette and minimalist style. To many people, the murals could be considered graffiti. And where is Jean in all of this? He’s taken the breakup with Eileen very hard, so he’s become an alcoholic, and he lets the more powerful Le Corbusier take over the villa.

Although “The Price of Desire” is supposed to be about Eileen Gray, the movie dilutes her perspective by making the character of Le Corbusier speak directly to the audience and share his thoughts. It’s a somewhat odd and distracting choice that McGuckian makes in this film’s narrative.

In real life, Le Corbusier was falsely credited for many years with designing E-1027, until the truth was revealed. Maybe having Le Corbusier narrate the film’s story is McGuckian’s way of demonstrating that even in a movie about Gray, Le Corbusier is trying to dominate and steal her thunder. But viewers of “The Price of Desire” would have to know this part of architectural history to understand this metaphor.

There’s a scene in “The Price of Desire” where Le Corbusier sums up how different he is from Eileen, when he interrupts a scene to talk to the audience about her: “There is so much uncertainty about sex, unless it’s paid for. In art, I can see clearly. In love, not so well. To me, they were incompatible and confused. To [Eileen Gray], they seemed utterly and intrinsically infused.”

Adding to the over-filtered cinematography, “The Price of Desire” also presents much of the movie’s scenes as if the story were a visual romance novel. Many scenes are filmed with too many slow-motion shots, some of which are almost laughable. Even when Eileen is doing the dirty work of breaking ground for the villa, she’s wearing no protective gloves and she’s dressed as if she’s about to go have a picnic in the park.

The movie has depictions of several real-life notable people from the mid-20th century artistic culture. The supporting character who gets the most screen time is artist Fernand Leger (played by Dominique Pinon), who’s a mutual friend of Eileen, Jean and Le Corbusier. Most of Fernand’s scenes consist of him witnessing some of the conflicts between his friends and trying to stay neutral, although in one scene he whispers to Eileen that she deserves to be happy, after she’s disrespected by Jean.

“The Price of Desire” also features cameo portrayals of writer Marcel Proust (played by Arnaud Bronsart); writer/artist Jean Cocteau (played by Fabien Boitiere); and Gray’s lesbian friends Gertrude Stein (played by Sammy Leslie), writer Natalie Barney (played by Natasha Girardi) and art promoter/filmmaker/choreographer Gabrielle Bloch (played by Caitriona Balfe). And it wouldn’t be a movie about high-end art without at least one billionaire. In this case, Aristotle Onassis (played by David Herlihy) makes an appearance.

There’s also a brief depiction author/adventurer Bruce Chatwin (played by Martin Swahey), who visits Eileen in her home toward the end of her life. She just happens to have a photo of Patagonia on her wall, and she mentions that she’s never been there. She then says to Chatwin: “Why don’t you go there for me?” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“The Price of Desire” is not a horrible film. It’s just not a very compelling one. The actors in the cast do a serviceable job, but much of the movie’s dialogue just isn’t good enough to elevate, no matter who is speaking the lines.

And worst of all, “The Price of Desire” makes the mistake of having Le Corbusier (who’s portrayed as a misogynistic blowhard) continually interrupt the story to talk directly to the audience. If the point of the movie was to give the proper respect to Gray because she experienced gender discrimination, that intention is ruined by diminishing her perspective and making the story’s narration come from the sexist egomaniac who tried to oppress her in real life.

Giant Pictures released “The Price of Desire” in North America on digital and VOD on June 2, 2020. The movie was already released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2016.