Rumee, a selection of documentary shorts created by emerging voices from the Twin Cities Somali community, opens up the series Reshaping Our World: Cinema without Borders on July 5. In addition to directing his own short as part of Rumee, Hamse Warfa produced and organized the collaborative work, showcasing the talent of three young filmmakers—Mohamed Warsame, Halima Aden, and Suud Olat. In preparation for opening night, I reached out to Warfa and Olat to hear about their shorts and their creative processes.
Rumee will be screened at 7:30 pm, July 5, in advance of Musa Syeed’s A Stray.
Interview with Hamse Warfa
Ed Hendrickson: Rumee represents the Somali community as strong and empowered, which is a great counter to more stereotyped representations. Can you talk a bit about how disparity in media representations of the Somali community informs your work?
Hamse Warfa: The Somali people have an ancient history, rich in storytelling traditions, a work ethic purposed toward serving the entire community, pursuing strong intergenerational bonds, and advancing our East African brand of Islamic culture. But this history has been stalled due to a toxic combination of colonialism, Cold War politics, clanism, and sectarianism that led to civil war nearly three decades ago. Now we are a Somali Diaspora. Our unique strengths as a people and individuals are tested every day in these foreign lands. Our trials include facing a pervasive media representation of Somalis as monolithic—all violent, all untrustworthy, yet all together in a grand anti-Western conspiracy despite our disunity in sect, clan, age, citizenship status, patriotism, and more. The monolithic narrative particularly injures the youngest generation of Somalis in the digital era and in countries whose direction is steered by pop culture. Representation informs social perception and interaction, and so for young people in grade schools where individual or group reputations are a Facebook post or fake news article away from ruin, one-dimensional media coverage puts them on the defensive at a time when they should be able to concentrate on their studies so that they can make the kind of economic and social contributions to our society that change the stereotype of Somalis as assets rather than deficits.
So, by acknowledging that our consciousness and social interaction are shaped by the stories we tell, it’s imperative for Somalis to first acknowledge our many different challenges as a group and as individuals and then tell a variety of stories about real and fictional actors responding to those challenges proactively, using the tools unique to our traditional culture along with more universal values and modern techniques, so that we can tell authentic and pluralistic narratives that build trust. We’re not asking for other people to love us or cherish us. We’re asking for friends and work partners.
One way to do this is through cinema, which was developing into a dominant art and entertainment form in Somalia in the decade prior to the civil war. The most successful Somali films from that time dealt with the Somali variety of universal challenges like drought and famine, but also romance and growing up, in a way that empowered the individual storyteller who relied on a crew of talented fellow filmmakers, and could bring all kinds of people together for the sake of confronting common challenges exposed and expressed artistically. I hoped to do the same in developing Rumee: to empower new voices by joining them with motivated professional and amateur collaborators from different backgrounds, with a mission to identify and portray a more diverse set of challenges faced by Somalis and non-Somalis alike, rather than the standard political horror story of Somalis as both perpetrators and victims of political violence.
Hendrickson: These shorts raise issues of integration and alienation, which seem timely given the contemporary xenophobic political landscape. In fact, Mohamed Warsame’s short, Rules of the Game, features a town hall where the demand for cultural assimilation is made explicit. To what extent do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
Warfa: Every film is political! That’s something one of my partners, James Christenson, and I talk a lot about. Propagandists and business people have been attached to filmmaking since it was invented. Some filmmakers attempt to deal with this by striving toward an indescribable pure film, or transcendent art, but I think academics and activists across the spectrum are so advanced now that there’s really no escaping politics in filmmaking. I’ve always respected the ethic of artists and storytellers who embed themselves in particular political and social and intellectual scenes and attempt to create works that synthesize ideas drawn from these diverse conversations that strike them at their core being because these ideas relate to some challenge they have experienced personally.
As a refugee myself, I’m most interested in autobiographical or biographical nonfiction works that deal with real experiences of journey, identity, and ethical code as a way of belonging in this world. Making my short film Work of Windlike, featuring someone who could be anyone’s role model, Abdikadir Hassan, satisfied all of those core interests, but in a way that would deepen them through the perspective of someone in the generation below mine. The political nature of the story—and the others in this batch of the series—became heightened as Muslim refugees became the latest target of the paranoid tradition in American politics that creates good/evil narratives as a way to avoid tackling the really hard issues. But when we first started working in 2015, I was more interested in discovering the motivations of Abdikadir’s commitment to public service in a way that could inspire any person who wants to give back to the community that raised them. For that reason, I’d rather these films primarily be labeled civic or educational than political, but if the sheer presence of refugees or Muslims in American civic life is a political issue these days, then I’m happy to accept the label because I know it’s one of the few political challenges that ought not to be a political issue at all.
Hendrickson: At times, these stories feel fantastic, almost fictional—I’m thinking especially of Halima Aden’s Mother as a Star and Suud Olat’s A Family Reunion—but they’re grounded in a candor that comes from admitting vulnerability. How do you understand documentary storytelling as it relates to personal and communal struggle?
Warfa: Documentary storytelling seems to expose its creators and/or subjects to two temptations—excessive heroism, pride or nobility, and excessive villainization, humiliation, or victimization. Agenda-based documentary filmmakers often fall into this trap on their way to creating political arguments, especially when they believe they stand on the “right” side of history. And narrative-driven documentary filmmakers often rely on elementary storytelling devices like hero and villain to introduce structure to their works. But to me, drawing from both my Islamic faith, which teaches that life is a test, but also from Western storytelling theory, I believe the guiding storytelling principle in documentary is finding and then documenting an active person who is raising the stakes toward a specific goal while involved in some kind of struggle to find clarity or belonging in a mysterious and hostile world. This raising of the stakes is the essence of drama in documentary. The second challenge is representing that person’s life in a way that reveals their vulnerability to forces that are out of their control, without subjecting them to an exposé show-all, tell-all that could seriously damage their essential dignity. Now that I’ve been on both sides of the camera, I’m way more confident saying that both filmmaker and subject should not be making documentaries to create heroes, but they should also not be making documentaries to sell shame and marginalization.
Hendrickson: Rumee seems to address both the Somali community and outsiders. To what extent do you feel you have two target audiences, and how does that dynamic of inside/outside expectation play into Rumee?
Warfa: One of the most significant questions that Rumee asks is: how can “Somali” stories be “mainstream” stories, and how can “mainstream” stories be “Somali” stories? If you accept the premise of the Somali community as insiders/outsiders, what you’re really doing is accepting the premise that ethnic consciousness is a core aspect of the American experience, which it undoubtedly is. So from that perspective, Rumee has an appeal to two audiences, since any hyphenated –American story will have an appeal to any American interested in what it actually means to be an American regardless of their prefix. Halima Aden participating in the Miss USA beauty pageant is a clear example of this dynamic, since her sheer presence in the contest was meant to strengthen the Somali identity, the American identity, and the Somali-American identity. There are all kinds of girls out there who struggle with living up to their mother’s and pop culture’s standards of beauty who relate to Halima’s story. That’s why her story is a winner, because it challenges our reductive understanding of insider/outsider.
Where this whole question of audience becomes really controversial is if you accept the premise that Somali stories ought to primarily have an appeal to all Somalis, and that you’re a traitor if mainstream appeal rather than mainstream confrontation is your goal. I’m sure there are ethnic Somalis from around the world that will watch Rumee and say that these aren’t Somali stories at all—they are American stories—just as there are mainstream folks who will say the opposite. These criticisms are largely the work of armchair censors who want to create singular, anti-intersectional, on-message identities among internally diverse groups of people, either to prove the group’s unity and strength to the wider community for the sake of integration and empowerment, or to prove their unity and strength for the sake of division and marginalization. The key for creators trying to shape culture locally and popularly is to understand the question of in-group vs. out-group audience, ethnic consciousness vs. human consciousness as a dialectic. Pop culture is shaped by a spectrum between individualists and collectivists. Individualists tend to see themselves and their works as honest, contrarian, proud, progressive, destructive, critical, lonely. Collectivists see themselves and their works as conformist, passive, humble, conservative, creative, tolerant, social. As we roll out more shorts under the Rumee banner, the main unifying element will be that each is told by a different original voice that attempts to help structure what is individual and what is collective in the American experience, whether they’re Somali or not.
Hendrickson: Tell me about your collaborative process—how did this group of filmmakers come together, how did you choose these stories, and how did you negotiate shared artistic decisions?
Warfa: We came together after I published a memoir, America Here I Come: A Somali Refugee’s Quest for Hope. I felt obligated to try to diversify the stories coming from the community, and was actually asked by all kinds of parents and young people to do that. Around that same time, mutual friends introduced me to James Christenson, a professional cinematographer and editor who felt that the barrier to capital in filmmaking and video production—equipment, software, and technical human talent—was the foremost barrier preventing Somali stories from engaging with the mainstream on a more honest level. He offered to work with me and other young people as long as we all treated each other as equals trying to make professional quality work, and not as some kind of feel-good, patronizing social experiment. From there, he and I developed Work of Windlike, which set a certain standard and buy-in to the project, and then asked a few amazing young activists to work as producers to identify other storytellers.
A lot of factors led them to bringing on a number of individuals related to the Somali Student Association at St. Cloud State University. But we also reached out to artists in Minneapolis, as well. We were more interested in the storyteller and not the story. From there, each individual worked with James and I to develop their work at a pace and collaborative code unique to each relationship to try to maximize the unique vitality of each work. Some took a month. Others took months. A couple never materialized. Some are still works-in-progress. Some sat down with James for hours at the editing station, whereas others trusted him to make something that would impress them. Every director or writer has a different approach in the real world, where some are in total control of every stage of the process if they have a clear vision, and others are more open to relying on talent around them with their job being to keep the story on track. Suud Olat, for instance, was a very hands-on director, whereas Halima Aden was very open to experimentation in form as long as the message came through. I retained final approval as executive producer to ensure a level of professional accountability. As the individual stories developed, they started to inform each other in interesting ways, with some themes or cinematic techniques repeating throughout multiple pieces. Rather than shy away from those commonalities, we embraced them as a way to bring a thread of coherence to our endeavor. It was a result of those eventual commonalities that we settled on the name Rumee, which means “to come to believe” in Somali, as a way of honoring and championing the fantastic way that a diverse group of people can retain their individual identities while working toward a mutual purpose that is not always known from the onset.
Hendrickson: What’s been your experience getting into film, and what do you feel might be done to foster a more diverse film culture?
Warfa: This has been my first experience getting into film, but definitely not my last. To foster a more diverse film culture, we need to improve access to capital in communities of color, since audience standards are so high these days that anything less than very high-quality aesthetics won’t impress, so funders need to understand the intensity of that barrier as a way to mitigate their sense of risk when it comes to funding gifted storytellers over technically accomplished filmmakers. Next, I think filmmakers of color have to sell their own communities and families about the value of artistic pursuits, and where they fail to sell, just do it if they truly believe they must create. Most communities of color are struggling to exit generational poverty, so when our sons and daughters say they want to pass on the lawyer or doctor or business thing to make movies, that tends to be a harder sell since it’s basically a vow of poverty, even for privileged folks. Part of this burden is accepting that you might have to develop a career or hold some kind of steady day job until you fully develop as a filmmaker. And last, directors and producers in privileged positions just need to hire more diversely out of a belief that they’ll make better, more successful work, and not for any ethical or moral or social reasons.
Interview with Suud Olat
Ed Hendrickson: Your short closes Rumee with a wonderful image—a family reunited at the airport. What inspired this story, and what were you trying to say about family and community?
Olat: Very inspirational, indeed. My goal was to tell Americans, and all other people who have negative thoughts and attitudes towards refugees, to see what a family reunion looks like. With all the rhetoric going on here, I was thinking of using the opportunity of my family arrival to show how it’s important to reunite with loved once after nearly six years of separation.
Hendrickson: I understand that you’re a young filmmaker, working with Hamse Warfa. What experience do you have in film, and what got you interested in making movies?
Suud Olat: As you may know, I grew up in the Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, in Kenya. What made me interested in film was being a refugee youth stranded in the refugee camp, the open-air prison half a million people were calling home. There, I began thinking about how we can tell our untold stories to the rest of the world. Luckily I got the opportunity to be trained as a filmmaker by Filmaid International, an organization based in New York City.
We chose these stories because they’re real stories about real people who’ve had first-hand experiences as young and active community members. They were ready to tell stories and educate others and help change perceptions.
We realized that every one of us is good at something and he or she can play a key role and be there to support community engagements and coming together through arts and film storytelling.
Hendrickson: What has your experience getting into film been like?
Olat: It’s been both good and bad, because I have seen in the film industry and in the media a lot of negative stories about my community and country. I think empowering youth and emerging filmmakers in this community will bring more opportunities and will open doors for more programs like Rumee. In the long run we need to support films on various issues and stories about refugees and new Americans.
Hendrickson: Do you plan to continue working in film, or is there some other dream?
Olat: Yes, I have plans to pursue my dream of becoming a well-known filmmaker and storyteller. Right now, I’m working on a memoir on my struggles during 20-plus years living in the refugee camp and coming to America to become a vocal advocate for refugees and a youth leader.