Naima Mohamud’s movie 14 E about a young boy’s story from Darfur is available on DVD from www.yhteisetlapsemme.fi. Her other movie, Breaking the Cycle, will also be available for purchase soon from the same site.

Reflecting on her story so far.

Naima Mohamud is a natural born storyteller. She is also an award-winning film director with a dazzling smile and a ready laugh. Her short film Fatima won the main prize in Chicago’s International Children’s Film Festival and she was awarded the Children’s Educator of the Year prize this year in Finland. Mohamud also happens to be a Somali immigrant from a family of ten, a devout Muslim, a young woman with strong ideas who also happens to wear a headscarf and is my friend. We meet in a busy café, where over gelatos and coffee, Mohamud tells me her story, so far.

Congratulations on winning the Educator of the Year award! Has life changed since you became an award-winning director?

Thank you, thank you! I would say yes, it has – but mainly for my family, which means what I do is taken more seriously now by them! I haven’t changed at all as a person, but it’s so strange with the power of having your picture in the newspaper. When they see you in Helsinki Sanomat – in an interview after I won in November – then everyone started to react differently towards me! Making films is the same as it has always been, I am as passionate as I have always been. Why should winning mean a thing?

That’s a great way of looking at it! How would you describe your movies?

They are about life with universal themes, like struggles that we can all relate to – after all, nobody’s life is perfect, we all have some struggles. And I’m more interested in understanding what those struggles are and how different people navigate their way through life’s difficulties. I guess I like to explore themes like survival – obviously because I am from Somalia.

Do you think being Somalian has affected the content of your films?

Yes, of course – I went to Hargeisa in 2008 and I saw some of my relatives that literally had nothing. They lived in shacks. They were just, in the very sense of the word – poor. That was shocking for me because we were related – it really hit hard. Growing up, I’ve always been aware of the fact that I come from somewhere with poverty and war. I’ve heard phone calls from relatives that had to call for help and aid. So though I am not in that situation, I can relate to people in that situation.

I’m so blessed having been born exactly the year I was born. From 1985-89, that was the ideal year to be born in Somalia, because after that it would have been the middle of a war, but before that you wouldn’t have gotten a fresh start, because you would have been too old. Personally, I got to take full advantage of having spent almost my whole life in Finland - and had the opportunity to go to day care and school here in Finland, which, when you think about it, was so critical.

Do you think this background and knowledge made you a different person?

Yes! You are more aware of your life and that it could have been very different. That gives you a real sense of gratitude. In 2008 I was on a trip back home, and met up with my cousins. They were supported by relatives abroad so they had a more comfortable life. My cousin touched my arm and said to me, ‘Your hands are so smooth, you’ve never had to do hard work, have you?’ I felt so bad when she said this, because we take everything for granted - that really made me think - I’m so incredibly grateful that I want to take what God has given me and make good of it. It’s ingrained in me to be an undying optimist!

Has your family been supportive of your choices?

My parents said do whatever you want – but do it well! Though to be honest – at first they didn’t really believe in me! My brother was like, ‘You’re good but you’re a black girl and you are going to be a filmmaker?’ But that didn’t discourage me. You see, I take it as a challenge if someone tells me I can do something I’ll go out and do it! If I really put my mind to something, all it takes is time and effort – and time passes anyway so you might as well put in the effort!

How did you get the idea that you wanted to be a filmmaker anyway?

I read this book when I was 14, and thought this would make such a great film! I didn’t even stop to think how I was going to do it, the decision was made! So I went to the library and borrowed books on screen writing, phoned the publishers of the book and asked for the author’s number, called her up and asked her for the rights to the book and her blessing - that she would allow me and no one else to turn her book into a movie. It never occurred to me to have any self-doubt! The author actually gave me her blessing, even if she was a little amused by me. She did ask me how old I was, and I said ‘22,’ thinking that it was really old at the time!

What was the name of the book, and how did the story turn out?

The book is called Tähkäyö – and in 2010 I applied for screenwriting grant but got rejected. I cried for half an hour, then decided: enough with the self-pity and sent in another application, and got a grant for that! It’s been four years now, maybe it’s time to try again? Now, when I think back, I’m really glad it got rejected, because in these four years that have passed I’ve changed and some essential parts of the story has changed too, but the author said go for it! We’ll see what happens with it in the future.

That sounds like a plan! So tell me, what is the average day in the life of Naima?

Well, an average Naima day – right now I’m writing a lot– and it’s the least fun part. I write screenplays because I have to, I’m a total control freak! I couldn’t direct a film I didn’t write because then I’ll think someone else knows this story better than me! So it’s much easier to write it myself and have total creative understanding of the characters in the story. While writing, I play out the scenes in my mind – so I have an idea of how I want it to be. In fact, there’s a reason and motive and mood why things happen in my films – I’m very precise, very detail orientated. My job is to be the actor’s mirror, because they need to look good and sound believable, which is what I help them with. I don’t direct to push people’s buttons but if there’s something wrong it’s got to be fixed and that’s the director’s job.

Wow, that sounds pretty tough – is directing hard?

Honest to God I have the easiest job in the world – in fact I wouldn’t want people to know how much fun I’m having because they might not pay me to do it! When I get into the mode, I’m very alert, and I’ll notice all these little details. Like recently, we were shooting a short film in Romania. A lot of people were worried about how would I direct the film in Romanian. But the fact is that there are people that are visual, those that are auditory, and those that makes sense with the feelings.

My strongest sense is sounds and tones of voices – so that made it really easy to direct in Romanian. I could make sense of how things were said rather than just what it meant, so I could give the actors direction! There are lots of emotions behind different words, so it doesn’t matter what language you speak, it’s all connected by feelings and emotions.

What movies would you like to do next?

I’d love to do sci-fi films next!

Tania Nathan
Image: Kai Kuusisto