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 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘XY Chelsea’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Chelsea Manning in "XY Chelsea"
Chelsea Manning in “XY Chelsea” (Photo by Tim Travers Hawkins)

“XY Chelsea”

Directed by Tim Travers Hawkins

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 1, 2019.

Less than a month before the documentary “XY Chelsea” was supposed to have its world premiere at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, controversial whistleblower Chelsea Manning (who’s the subject of the movie) was arrested on March 8, for refusing to testify before a grand jury about the classified U.S. government documents that she leaked to WikiLeaks in 2010. Before the arrest kept her in jail, Manning had been scheduled to attend the “XY Chelsea” premiere and to do an on-stage Q&A afterward. The filmmakers also had to redo the ending of the movie to include updates about the arrests of Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was taken into custody on April 11, 2019.

It’s one of many twists and turns to Manning’s saga that this revealing documentary chronicles with an unwavering purpose: to show viewers who she really is and how she has adjusted to life outside of prison. Manning was imprisoned from 2010 to 2017, the year that President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence. At a post-premiere Q&A, Manning’s criminal-defense attorney Nancy Hollander said that Manning’s refusal to testify is a protest against the system.

Back in 2010, when Manning was first arrested for the notorious case, she was Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst with access to thousands of classified government documents. After being convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other crimes in 2013, Manning announced that she was going to live her life as a transgender woman named Chelsea Elizabeth Manning. The “XY” in the documentary’s title refers to the chromosomes that determine if a human is male or female; males typically have the XY chromosome, while females usually have the XX chromosome.

Manning has given many interviews and speeches since her release from prison, and she also had a failed 2018 campaign for U.S. Senator to represent her home state of Maryland. But this documentary, which had unprecedented access to Manning, gives viewers a raw and unflinching look at her life behind the scenes.

The movie begins with the news that Manning was pardoned and is set to be released from prison. As a trans woman who was forced to dress like a man in prison, viewers see that Manning has already picked out the type of clothes she wants to wear after her prison release. There’s a phone conversation with Manning instructing her attorney Hollander on the exact pages of fashion magazines where she can find the clothes that Manning wants to wear. Stepping on the plane that will take her to her new home, it’s clear that Manning still can’t quite believe that she is no longer in prison. But Manning isn’t a typical ex-con, and it’s clear she can’t have a “normal” life because of her notoriety. She has to deal with a multitude of issues, including life after prison, life after the military, and life after coming out as a trans woman.

Viewers see that even though she’s no longer in prison, Manning can’t feel completely free because she believes that the government will always be out to get her, now that she’s been declared an enemy of the state. Her paranoia is palpable as she checks for hidden recording devices when she’s in a hotel room. And because Manning has admitted to suicide attempts while she was in prison, there’s an underlying sense that her mental health has varying degrees of fragility.

In the documentary’s interviews, Manning opens up about her unhappy childhood. She says both of her biological parents were heavy drinkers, her father was abusive, and she was hated so much by her stepmother that she was eventually kick out of their home. Manning also said that although her father had a problem with her living as a gay man, it didn’t bother him as much as when she revealed her true identity as a transgender woman.

As for why she joined the military in the first place, Manning said she did it “almost on a whim” because it was her way of trying to escape her trans identity. By joining an establishment that requires strict conformity, Manning said that she was hoping that the military could “cure” her sexual identity, much like “going cold turkey from a drug addiction.”

She is more guarded about what it was like to be a transgender woman in prison. Choosing her words carefully, and often pausing before she speaks, Manning said that she was constantly watched in prison, guards would do things such as walk in on her while she was changing clothes, and people’s reactions to her trans identity were “complicated” and “human.” Manning’s experience in solitary confinement has left emotional scars, since she said that a part of her died when she had to spend so much time in isolation.

While out of prison, the documentary shows Manning becoming very active on social media. In the photo shoot for her first post-prison portrait (which she uses as a social-media profile picture), she jokes that her low-cut blouse might show too much “boobage.” As Manning’s post-prison life evolves into very outspoken activism, particularly against Republicans, she experiences extreme reactions from the public: The people who love her think she’s an American hero, and they treat her almost like a rock star when she’s at political events. There people who hate her think she’s a traitor, and they treat her like a disgusting freak.

Manning’s mantra/political slogan has become “We Got This,” as a way of saying that whatever life throws her way, she can handle it. Her decision to run for U.S. Senate as a first-time political candidate speaks to how high her ambitions are and the groundswell of support that she felt from people. However, there’s a sense of loneliness that permeates Manning’s life—she’s estranged from her family and does not have very many close friends, since she understandably finds it difficult to trust people, and her fame causes a certain isolation. At one point in the documentary, Manning says, “I know I’m not the person that people think I am.”

The documentary also shows what happened behind the scenes during Manning’s Senate campaign and the moment that it all imploded in January 2018. In a misguided attempt at what Manning calls “rapport building,” she went to a right-wing political event called “A Night for Freedom” in New York City, where she was seen hobnobbing with pro-Trump supporters and people who express racist, sexist and homophobic viewpoints. As Manning described it on social media, she “crashed the fascist/white supremacist hate brigade party,” and that she “learned in prison that the best way to confront your enemies is face-to-face in their space.” But she got an immense amount from backlash from left-wing people, many of whom withdrew their support of her. (Manning lost the Senate primary by a landslide.)

In “XY Chelsea,” Manning is seen having a meltdown over the backlash, which she mistakenly thought would blow over in a few days. In a tension-filled scene, Manning shouts to spokesperson Janus Rose and campaign manager/communications director Kelly Wright, “This is driving us into the fucking ground!” Later, Manning fights back tears, as she says that going to the “Night for Freedom” event was “indefensible” and “wrong.” She adds, “I’m not a hero. I’ve just always been someone wanting to do something.”

And in a prophetic scene near the end of the movie, Manning has this to say about why she’s chosen to be a risk-taking activist speaking out against government corruption: “What are they going to do? Throw me in prison? Kill me? They’re going to do that anyway if we let them. I’d rather go down fighting.”

Showtime will premiere “XY Chelsea” on June 7, 2019.