Biopics can be a tough balancing act for filmmakers. Even films about the most extraordinary people tend to heighten the movie drama to make biographical material fit the rhythm of recognizable genre filmmaking.
Writer and director Mary McGuckian takes a straightforward approach in adapting Ifrah Ahmed’s life story for the new feature, A Girl from Mogadishu. McGukian’s bare-bones directing style minimizes the potential for generic melodrama in Ifrah’s story. This is a narrative directed by Ahmed’s biographical voiceovers rather than filmmaking flourish
The first part of the film follows Ifrah as a teenager, played in these early scenes by Malaika Herrador, at the outbreak of the Somalia War in 2006. After a brutal sexual assault Ifrah attempts to leave Somalia to seek asylum in America. She is smuggled into Ethiopia by bus, narrowly avoiding military detention and human traffickers on her journey.
Throughout this sequence of events, McGuckian presents the audience with scenarios that would play out as tense set-pieces in other films. In one sequence, Ifrah hides under a pile of luggage to avoid detection by soldiers at a military checkpoint and later she makes an escape from a human trafficker. McGuckian directs these scenes with a dominant focus on Ifrah’s reactions but the action itself is downplayed.
Ifrah is smuggled from Ethiopia by Hassan (Barkhad Abdi). Ifrah’s destination is supposed to be Minnesota but instead, she ends up in Dublin. Hassan insists that seeking asylum in Ireland is the only option Ifrah has. He soon disappears leaving a confused Ifrah with no choice in the matter.
The preceding sequences showing Ifrah’s travels using a forged passport are shot in the same low-key manner as her escape into Ethiopia. Moments that would seem to have high stakes for both Hassan and Ifrah pass by with no consequence. A longshot at an airport terminal shows Ifrah as just one of many travellers, with tourists, business people, and other travellers milling about oblivious to her struggle or the significance of her journey.
In Ireland, Ifrah is surprised by the weather and food. These initial experiences play out as one-off episodes and it’s hard to know what we are supposed to take away from them. In one scene, an employee at the centre where Ifrah is staying laughs because she is having trouble eating breakfast cereal which she finds unpalatable. Ifrah is annoyed and throws her sandal at him. She’s then given a stern talking to about not giving into anger.
The scene could be read as a critique of the treatment of newly arrived refugees. The culture shock is easy to sympathize with, but then there’s the communication angle, that Ifrah herself must do better now that she’s in Ireland. There are other throwaway sequences like this in the film that seem to present an issue or obstacle but ultimately come to nothing when set against the film’s overall narrative. This approach seems a symptom of the testimonial nature of the film, undermining expectations again, showing us that not all of life’s episodes must be life-altering.
A routine medical check-up is scheduled as part of Ifrah’s application for asylum. During a gynecological exam, it’s discovered that Ifrah has had a female circumcision, long before we see a dramatization of the procedure. It is explained to us through a scene where Ifrah’s social worker talks with a doctor.
The recollection and confrontation of this trauma sees Ifrah learn English in earnest so as to tell her story to as many people as possible. A flashback to a young Ifrah held down by her grandmother morphs into a flashforward of Ifrah speaking to the European Parliament about female genital mutilation in 2013.
A Girl from Mogadishu doesn’t present genital mutilation in a lurid manner. McGuckian is not in the business of sensationalism, and she is not an exploitation filmmaker.
The pacing of the film shifts gears after this flash-forward moving as does Ifrah with purpose and energy to bring us to her goal and the endpoint of the narrative. There is a lot to take in as Ifrah learns English, speaks in front of politicians, takes part in demonstrations, runs afoul of critics back home in Somalia and faces threats to her well-being in Ireland from Facebook and Twitter accounts.
A Girl from Mogadishu packs a lot of material into its running time and as a result, a lot of scenes aren’t given the breathing room they need. Occasionally, the pacing slows again bringing us back to Ifrah’s past in what are the film’s most memorable and most distressing segments. After delivering a speech to an audience of her peers the camera hangs on Ifrah’s face for a moment longer than is comfortable. With a blink of her eye we’re back in Somalia. A young Ifrah is running and playing with other children.
What follows is a sequence that elaborates on images we see during the film’s opening credits. This scene is drenched in bright light, we are looking through the veil of memory at something distant and repressed. McGuckian’s camera employs a heavy motion blur as she tracks Ifrah and other young girls as they’re led into a hut by Ifrah’s grandmother.
McGuckian’s frames trauma as something that cannot be confronted head-on. The horror of what Ifrah and others like her experienced is presented to us in the sound of children screaming or through testimony. A reconstruction would not be enough because cinema so frequently serves images of violence as entertainment.
McGuckian’s no-frills style and the pacing of the story call to mind documentary filmmaking. Voiceover communicates Ifrah’s feelings to us in a matter-of-fact tone, on-screen images suggest feelings that the voiceover confirms. Ifrah Ahmed seems to be more subject than character and it’s hard for King to truly inhabit the role and show us the inner workings of the person behind this inspiring story.
A Girl from Mogadishu is an earnest championing of an inspirational and courageous activist. The film works best as an overview of, or a jumping-off point into, Ifrah Ahmed’s life and work. Unfortunately, King’s performance feels held back by a reliance on voiceover and the speed of the overall narrative. In a way this speaks to the depth and breadth of Ahmed’s experience even as the moment to moment on-screen action struggles to do so.