Love-struck teenagers, angry parents, rowing couples: Somali youth tired of seeing their homeland portrayed as a war-torn famine zone have started making films to show a different side to their country. “The world knows Somalia for war,” said Adirahman Ali Suge, a 19-year-old writer and film director, part of a group of refugee Somali film makers in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. “But we have love stories and drama to tell too.”
Several films have been made so far along with a few soap operas. They are either in Somali, English or Swahili — the main language of east Africa — and net a few thousand dollars in profits at the most.The shoe-string budget films of “Eastleighwood” — named after Nairobi’s bustling Somali district — is a world away from its namesake Hollywood, India’s Bollywood or Nigeria’s Nollywood — Africa’s biggest film industry.
A cast member of the Somali film industry christened ‘Eastleigwood’ at a production studio in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb.
In central Africa, Nollywood movies are the only ones sold by market vendors as “African movies”, with the Nigerian productions dubbed into French in such countries as Cameroon and Gabon.In Kenya, Nigerian films are also a hit — many of them broadcast on terrestrial networks — but face competition from Bollywood due to a historic large Indian population.
However, Suge, who fled Somalia as a child shortly after the start of civil war in 1991 — still ongoing today — sees the similarities.”I like to watch Bollywood movies, with all their singing and dancing, and that is in our films too,” he said, speaking as actors rehearsed the latest drama, set in a small shop plastered with posters of Indian movie stars.
“In Somali culture, when a man and women love each, they sing to each other,” he added. “Love is something all over the world: we have it, they have it, so you really shouldn’t be surprised.” The aim is to portray a “normal” Somalia than the usual television footage dominated by war, rebels and hunger.
Cameraman Abuker Yusuf cites the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” — the story of the 1993 battle between US troop and Somali fighters in the capital Mogadishu. “Of course there is fighting in Somalia, that is true,” said Yusuf, aged 24, who fled Mogadishu for Ethiopia a decade ago, before later moving to Kenya. “But the films show normal life too, our daily lives.”
Somalia’s war is far from over — regional armies are battling Al-Qaeda allied Shebab insurgents, while aid agencies fear a slip back to catastrophic humanitarian crisis that saw famine zones declared in several regions last year. But Martin Gumba, a Kenyan director who in 2010 helped set up the youth groups to make films and act, believes the fledgling industry is important for young people to look towards a more peaceful future.
Somali cameraman Abuker Yusuf on location in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb
“People need a platform to tell their own story, to allow their hopes and dreams,” Gumba said. “Mainstream media is not a fair representation… you hardly ever see Somalia images unless it is of conflict, hunger or piracy.” But the film makers have to be careful. While hardline Shebab appear to be on the backfoot militarily, the extremists remain influential and have outlawed the watching of films and football, as well as clamping down on non-religious music.
Films are screened in public in Eastleigh, before being sold on DVDs, with some copies of the movies being taken back to Mogadishu following the Shebab’s pullout from fixed positions there last year. “There have been private screenings in Mogadishu, but small ones because people still fear Al-Shebab,” said Gumba. “Some people don’t like it and you have to be careful… but it is the voice of a people showing the better side of their country.”
Sales of the DVDs are raising money for Eastleighwood’s first feature length film, which is currently in the planning stages, with filming hoped to start later this year. The planned film, titled “Green Oasis”, revolves around a family hit by drought and conflict and how they are forced to migrate.
The hoped-for budget is a stunning 100 million Kenyan shillings (about one million euros) and its backers hope to raise the money from private financiers and film institutes. Some of the Somali films have been broadcast on Kenyan television stations but profits in general are however held back by a different form of a problem that Somalia has become infamous for in the outside world: piracy.
“It is a big issue,” Gumba said, adding that pirated copies of the films circulate a week after the films are released. Filming is done in Eastleigh’s muddy streets and amid the crowded high rise buildings here, with actors weaving in and out of the crowds at the street markets selling fried spicy snacks, heaps of bananas and piles of melons.
“The people here look Somali, they are Somali,” said actress Hibo Abdi, waving at the busy pavements crowded with women dressed in the flowing and colourful dresses and headscarves worn in Somalia. “When we want to set a scene in Mogadishu, then we go to a slum area to make it authentic,” Suge added. “But conflict is the background — the story is of life.