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INTERVIEW: Somali director Mo Harawe talks history-making Cannes title ‘The Village Next to Paradise’: “For 70% of the crew, it was first time on a film set”

Wednesday May 22, 2024

Mo Harawe

Mo Harawe makes history this Cannes Film Festival with debut feature The Village Next To Paradise, which is world premiering in Un Certain Regard as the first Somalian title to make it into Official Selection across the festival’s 77 editions.

Born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Harawe moved to Austria to study film when he was 18 years old.

The Village Next to Paradise follows hard-hitting shorts Life on the Horn, about toxic waste landing on the Somali coast, and Will My Parents Come to See Me, about a young prison inmate.

Set in a ramshackle village on the Somali coast, the drama follows a single father as he struggles with the challenges of daily life, 
in order to offer to his young son, Cigaal, a better future.

They are joined in their home by Araweelo, who is in the process of divorcing. Together they navigate between their different aspirations and the complex world surrounding them, relying on love, trust and resilience to overcome the challenges they face.

Somalian actors Ahmed Ali Farah, Anab Ahmed Ibrahim and Ahmed Mohamud Saleban make their big screen debut in the drama, showing a Somalia rarely shown on the big screen.

Deadline caught up with Harawe ahead of the Cannes premiere.

DEADLINE: How are you feeling about going to Cannes with your first feature film? 

MO HARAWE: I think it’s a great platform to share our feelings with a lot of people, and to get the visibility that the film needs. I’m really looking forward to seeing the reaction of my exceptional crew when they see the film for the first time.

DEADLINE: After short films Life on the Horn and Will My Parents Come to See Me, how was it moving into a feature? 

HARAWE: It’s completely different because with short films, I had some kind of control in terms of writing, shooting, and editing in every sense. I could sense the rhythm of the film even while shooting. I would know what scene comes after what, and the shoot would only last eight or nine days max. You can see the end and the beginning, you know the energy, you know where the character will be.

With this film, we shot for three months, and every day was a different challenge. Although I wrote the script myself. In a feature, you think, this shot was from two months ago, and you have a lot of doubts about how to extend the same energy.

We didn’t have a long pre-production period for this film, but in hindsight, that was a good thing because if we had, I don’t know if we would have made the film at all. We would have seen how difficult it was going to be and I would have given up, maybe.

We shot it in Somalia, and for 70% of the crew, it was their first time on a film set, so we took a bit more time to get them acclimated. We also had a lot of wind the whole time, which was good because it’s a part of the film but that also made it challenging to handle equipment. The leads did amazingly, especially as people who had never been in front of a camera before. They never went to acting school, but they were professionals.

It was tough to spotlight so many different characters, though. Maybe next time I should have only one character.

DEADLINE: What are you hoping people will take away from The Village Next to Paradise?

HARAWE: I mean, not taking away anything from the film is also good. If someone leaves the cinema thinking, “Wow, I don’t know what to think about that”, that probably means it was quite deep or something [laugh]. Jokes aside, even if nobody thinks anything about the film, I hope they at least see honesty. We made the film with a lot of love and honesty.

During the years that I’ve been abroad, I’ve been asked a lot of times where I’m from. Whenever I say I’m from Somalia, they say ‘oh!’. People have another picture of it in their minds. Out of all the other reasons I made this film, this was mainly about me trying to say ‘No, with all the challenges I had, there is a normal life out there’, you know? That was the first motivation, me trying to reassure people about the other image they have. All others come after.

DEADLINE: All Your work so far has been set in Somalia? How personal is your work and do you have plans to shoot elsewhere, say in Europe, given your Austria connections?

HARAWE: Of course, whether it’s a dialogue that I wrote somewhere or the ideas, there is always something inspired by my experience in all these films. Here and there are a few scenes that have happened to me but they are personal and I will keep them for myself. More than my personal experience however, all my films are about the world that I lived in, which at the end of the day doesn’t make much of a difference, because I am equally a part of that.

I haven’t taken a decision to limit my storytelling to just Somalia. At the end of the day, emotions are universal. For the moment it’s just the question of whether I can contribute and take the big responsibility of telling someone’s story. If everything aligns, I would love to make films in other countries or about other people.

DEADLINE: What does the landscape look like for stories coming out of Somalia at the moment?

HARAWE: In the last few years, there have been small TV shows, and we have streaming but there’s really no real film infrastructure in Somalia at all. Luckily, there are filmmakers that are coming out and trying to make films about Somalia. Two years ago, there was this film that was in Cannes called The Gravedigger’s Wife by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, who is a great filmmaker. There are a few filmmakers now who live here between Africa and Europe and are trying to make stories happen, so the future looks better for the Somali film industry – if I can call it that.

DEADLINE: And what is something about your country that you wish more people knew?

HARAWE: That’s a difficult question because I don’t know where to start. But it’s also hard because I can’t even say to just Google it – compared to other countries you’ll get maybe 1% of information, and 99% of that would be from one perspective. Let me put it on a positive note and say, find out about Somalia’s poetic side. Learn about our wonderful poetry [maanso and hees].

DEADLINE: There has been criticism about a lack of stories from the African continent in film festivals like Cannes. Do you think this is because of a lack of infrastructure, or could there be other reasons? 

HARAWE: Africa is a big, big continent with over 50 countries. I am not in a position to talk about countries that I have never been to, say Namibia or something. All I know is that [the situation] must be too bad to not have films represented from that big, big, big, big continent with such rich traditional storytelling. Let me put it like this –  I think it’s not only down to having a lack of infrastructure. The continent is too big to [have such little representation] simply because of that. How many films come from Asia every year? From Europe, from America? Let’s say there are 500 films coming from these continents every year. Even if the situation in Africa is really, really bad, there should still be at least 10% of that number of films coming from the continent. All I will say is that it’s definitely not only because of a lack of infrastructure.

DEADLINE: What’s next? Do you have more other feature film projects in the pipeline?

HARAWE: I don’t even need to make another film. When I think of how I started out, all I can say in hindsight is that there was a need for me to say something, and the only language that was universal was the visual language. I know how privileged I am to be in this position. I made short films, I said things I wanted to say, I expressed myself. How many people in the world can say, okay, I made a feature film that was my ideas and my stories? How many people can say that? I will only make another film if I feel like it’s necessary for me to make.  Maybe this is the last time, who knows?


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