As It Happens·Q&A

Somalis go to the movies for the first time in 30 years

Filmmaker Kaif Jama was thrilled to see people in the seats at Somalia's National Theatre in Mogadishu on Wednesday to watch two films she had written and starred in. The films were the first to be publicly screened in the country in 30 years.

It's a 'magical place', says Kaif Jama, who wrote and starred in films screening at The National Theatre

Somali scriptwriter and actor Kaif Jama speaks to media before the first screening of Somali films at The National Theatre in Mogadishu. She wrote both films, and the screening was the first for the public in Somalia in 30 years. (Abdirahman Yusuf/AFP/Getty Images)

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Filmmaker Kaif Jama was thrilled to see people in the seats at Somalia's National Theatre in Mogadishu on Wednesday to watch two films, the first films screened for the public in the country for 30 years.

Jama, 24, wrote and starred in both films, which were directed by Ibrahim CM. The screening also represented a kind of homecoming for her — she left Somalia as a child, and moved around before settling in Cairo. 

"I'm going to be the youngest Somali filmmaker ever," she remembered thinking at age 11, after someone suggested she'd be good at it. Since then she has collaborated with fellow Somali filmmaker IBrahim CM on many short films.

Jama said it was special to be in the National Theatre, a building she called a "magical place." The theatre was built as a gift from China's Mao Zedong and opened in 1967. But screenings and events stopped in 1991 when the country's civil war began, and the building was badly damaged.

Then the building was repaired and reopened briefly in 2012, but was bombed by the militant group al-Shabaab shortly after that.

Jama spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off from Mogadishu. Here is part of their conversation.

Kaif, can you describe that moment when all these people came into the theatre to watch your films?

It was really amazing and most of the people ... half of them, they were like [the] older generation, they just came to have the same experience that they had in the theatre before. So they just came to watch, you know, they did not even know about me, they didn't not even know what movies I'm making.

Most of the other people were some of my fans that used to watch my movies before and they're really very excited. So I was so happy. I was so overwhelmed. And I interacted with everyone, had [a] conversation with half of the people. 

Two audience members wait for the films to start. (Abdirahman Yusuf/AFP/Getty)

Were there people who came who had never been in a movie theatre in Mogadishu before?

I think since 1990, up to now, there was no Somali child that was in the theatre. So there's so many people that were not...here before, this is their first time. And the older generation before that, like from 1987 was the last time they had a live show in the theatre. There were people who were there, like from that time, from that era basically.

Those young people who are ... in a theatre, an actual movie house in Mogadishu and seeing Somali film, seeing you and seeing films made about and from Somalis, what was that experience like for them? What do they tell you?

One of the movies was a horror movie, and the other one was a comedy movie, and so basically a lot of them did not relate to the horror movies. And I don't think they are [a] fan of horror right now for Somali people.

They really related to the comedy, though. And I think because they experience some disturbance everyday and some problems in daily life, that they really just want comedy. They want to laugh. You know. They don't care about sad stuff. They don't want to watch horror movies.

The two films that played ... one is Hoos  and the other is The Date From Hell. Can you tell us a bit about the stories in those two movies?

Hoos [means] shadow in English, it's a horror movie basically based on a young Somali girl that is super-Westernized, you know, and so influenced by Western culture. And a Somali mom that is also really influenced by her own culture. And she likes her culture.

So the culture clashes between her and her mom, you know, and how they don't understand each other. So her mom kicked her out of the house ... and she cannot afford a place, she just takes a random place and she faces problems and she faces problems there, and in the house, [there's] other beings that live in the house.

And the comedy is Date from Hell?

Yeah. And the comedy is Date from Hell, basically just based on a young boy that is a homeless boy, but with a lot of boy, but with a lot of dreams, you know, and with a lot of hope.

And what's what's funny about that?

This is like, you know, a ... misery comedy, where it's sad because obviously the person is homeless, but so funny because of how vibrant he is, how happy he is, how he sees life. ...He doesn't feel like he's homeless, he doesn't feel like he's missing anything, he's super happy about that and he's just like having fun in telling stories and all that. And that was the funny part about it, is how he's interacting with this girl who is super tied up and how he's so happy while the girl, she has everything, but she's super miserable and tied up while he's happy.

But there's so many things that are extraordinary about this, because, first of all, that you have these great stories to tell, that you're telling them in the Somali language, that you're in Mogadishu to show them. ...The films are shown in this extraordinary building of great history, the National Theatre. And so what's it like inside there?

It's so beautiful, you know? Can you believe in the National Theatre, there was like birds in the night and they were making noise? More than the movie. I think they were watching it. I'm not even joking.

Viewers wait for the first screening of Somali films at The National Theatre of Somalia in Mogadishu. (Abdirahman Yusuf/AFP/Getty Images)

But given that people ... in Mogadishu have known and seen a lot of violence and they have seen al-Shabaab, have seen warlords fighting, have seen these buildings destroyed and bombed. Were people nervous to come to the theatre? ...Was there any reluctance to be in a building that has been under attack before?

My mom did not go. She was like,'You know what? I don't want me and you to die together.' I was like, 'OK, Mom, I'm going to go either way.' And so my mom stayed back, actually, and everyone came but a lot of people could have came because the theatre can actually fit like 6,000 people.

So all those people could have came, like literally, but they ... did not because they were really scared and they were nervous that something's going to happen there. But it was safe, it's really safe, though, nothing happened, everyone was happy, everyone who came there went home safe and I was not nervous at all.

What does your mother think of your success of being able to show your films in Mogadishu, in that theatre?

She watched all the news and stuff, and she was really happy, she's like, "You did [a] good job, I'm proud of you." Even though she doesn't make movies, she's always hoping I become a doctor or something one day.


Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. This interview has been shortened and condensed.


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