Photo Credit: Ahmed Farah

Ahmed Farah on How His Film 'Ayaanle' Challenges Somali Tropes

With terrorism plaguing countries in the Horn of Africa, Ahmed Farah’s terrorist-themed movie, Ayaanle, takes a critical look beyond the surface, attempting to challenge a stereotype that also implicates Western media.

In Nairobi, a young Somali man with dreams of becoming a famous actor gets caught up in an unfortunate sitaation. He’s asked by a friend to act as a terrorist leader for international reporters. This is the scenario at play on Ayaanle, the feature debut from Somali director Ahmed Farah.The movie comes with a certain self-awareness. The mocking of international media and its troping of Somalis as terrorists is present. Western reporters, in their pursuit for convenient labelling, are scammed by locals impersonating pirates and terrorists.

Farah makes sly observations of this cottage industry. Barkhad Abdirahman, who plays the titular character, joins forces with Farah to shine a light into his own life as an actor. Starring in 2013’s Captain Phillips, where he plays a Somali pirate, he hasn’t been afforded the room to step into other roles of interest.

Coming from making documentaries (The Last Hijack) in 2014, 43-year-old Farah is applying his creative impulses towards feature-length projects. Last month, Ayaanle premiered in the U.S. at the New York African Film Festival. Come October, it will screen at the BFI London Film Festival. Next month, the film is set for a wide release in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, South Africa, Djibouti and Kenya.

Speaking from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up last month, Farah tells OkayAfrica about making Ayaanle despite challenges and his vision as a filmmaker from Somalia.

Actor Barkhad Abdirahman

Barkhad Abdirahman plays the titular character.

Photo Credit: Screenshot Ayaanle

How did the inspiration for Ayaanle come about?

I was with friends who were shooting a documentary about Somali pirates. We have both been following each other’s works and on this set, the man who they found as the pirate was sharing his life story to them. As I listened to him, I immediately suspected that what he was saying was made up. He’s Kenyan-Somali and even though he did his research, it was still a fabrication. He wasn’t a real pirate. During a break, I approached him to have my suspicions confirmed. Turned out I was right. By his own admission, he asked that I [don't] ruin things for him or spoil his gig.

I realized that this was an actor. I did some research and found out that he’s among a group of make-believe actors who have been featured as pirates in international press like the New York Times. This is a documentary about someone posing as who they are not just to earn some money. So this was how the inspiration for Ayaanle came about, from fake pirates and terrorists.

Ayaanle was shot in Nairobi, Kenya. How challenging was it to shoot?

First, it’s the same problem plaguing African filmmaking, the lack of support from the government. You are required to do everything yourself in making your film without assistance. We struggled to get access to government institutions and places. There was also a challenge in gaining government permits. It was really tough trying to get guns and you can’t use fake guns. It took weeks and months to get the access and permits we needed. Another thing we faced was trying to shoot scenes in main streets and city centers because filming is restricted. What we were left with were the slums, and crowd management with which was tasking.

Ayaanle premiered at the New York African Film Festival last month. Are there plans for theatrical releases in Kenya and Somalia?

Actually we were still editing the film just before it was shown at NYAFF. And there are plans to release the film in Kenya and Somali because I’m particularly interested in what Africans think about the story we tell. Because, at the end of the day, the people you would like to give you credit are Africans.

Cinema in Somalia has suffered decades of being in the dark, hijacked by terrorism which has posed security challenges. How do you think Ayaanle will revitalize cinema culture in the country?

We are aware of the security issues in Somalia and all the mayhem. And even though we shot the film in Kenya, we had the trailer premiere in Somalia and people came around, including government officials and the media. They saw that we could tell local stories with an international level of production, stories that otherwise won’t be told by Western media.

Take for example movies like Captain Phillips and Black Hawk Down, which were adapted from books written by white men. Despite having Somali characters, it is not a Somali story. It’s all shown through a Western lens.

We need to tell our own stories and to be able to do that, we need access and funding. We need people to be supportive and understand the value of storytelling. I think Ayaanle is breaking the barrier and it’s proving that we too can deliver the same quality with Hollywood movies. Also, cinema is a business, and investors and business people will see that there’s money to be made and invest in our industry.

Somali woman

Ayaanle comes with a certain level of self-awareness.

Photo Credit: Screenshot Ayaanle

What do you think are the pressing concerns for Somali filmmaking or the Somali film industry?

We have a lot to do and learn ourselves. Our government comes from a failed state and has been struggling with building the system. If you look at any successful film industry, the government has a hand involved, the support is there. What we are hoping is that things become stable and the government understands the value of storytelling. Movies have the power to change the mindset of the youths, with employment and distract them from participating in certain vices.

I think movies will help people see a different side of Somalia, even for the Somalis themselves and the ones in the diaspora, who barely know what’s happening in the country. We need to talk a lot more and make ourselves heard, with the government and entrepreneurs coming together to build cinema infrastructure for the country.

What did you hope to achieve in handling the portrayal of terrorism and radicalization?

Ayaanle is story about a young Somali actor who has always been cast as a terrorist or a pirate, so he’s struggling to find a balance to get different roles other than the ones he is always portrayed in. He’s also not making enough money as an actor. I wanted the film to talk about what international media gets wrong about terrorism, to ask the question of how much is true in their depictions.

For me, it’s also about drawing attention to the desperate actors who are tell fake stories as terrorists and pirates in movies. I focused on the theme of terrorism because it affects the youth in Somalia. Let’s say you have been arrested for something and the first thing the police does is label you as a terrorist. It also addresses police corruption and complicity. When you go for casting or auditions, the roles about terrorism are reserved for Somalis, we aren’t portrayed as doctors or business persons. Ayaanle is targeting how Somalis are typecast as terrorists.

Actor Barkhad Abdirahman

Abdirahman joins forces with Farah to shine a light into his own life as an actor.

Photo Credit: Screenshot Ayaanle

Talking about the cast, Barkhad Abdirahman is famous for playing a member of a pirate crew role in the Hollywood film Captain Phillips. Did you have Abdirahman in your mind when you were thinking about a male lead for Ayaanle or did his casting come much later?

Incidentally, Barkhad was in Kenya as part of the cast for Watu Wote, which was nominated for an Oscar. The film was about a bus being attacked by Al-Shabaab, a unique story and I was on the set. That was where I met Barkhad for the first time. He was telling me how he couldn’t get roles other than terrorist and that was when I saw him playing an actor in my film. It felt convenient.

Throughout the story of Ayaanle, there’s nothing that I made up. It is based on real stories. Barkhad has experience and isn’t a newcomer. He was in the American series Fargo and Stray. As my first film, I didn’t want to take the risk of casting someone new. Right away, I saw him playing the role of Ayaanle.

Ahmed Farah directing

"My focus is to tell Somali stories and make it universal."

Photo Credit: Ahmed Farah

As a a Somali filmmaker, do you think there are expectations for you to make films that talk about terrorism?

I have the freedom to do whatever I want because I’m not dependent on anyone’s funding, it’s a choice I made a long time ago. If I want to do things my way and I need to find my funds my way. I don’t have the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of others. I’m doing my things the way I see them fit. This is why I prefer to do low-budget movies for which I’m in full control and then progress from there. In the future, I would like to do comedy, horror, thrillers, love stories, whatever comes to mind as long as it is interesting for people to watch. My focus is to tell Somali stories and make it universal.

Photo Credit: Rashad McCrorey

How a Black American Became the Tourism Chief of Elmina, Ghana

We spoke with Rashad McCrorey, the Tourism Chief of Elmina, about what the title represents, his identity as a Black American integrating back into Africanness and the state of the Black diaspora.

The first time Rashad McCrorey was in Ghana, it was in January 2015. Visiting the West African country wasn’t planned. His school in the U.S., Drew University, where he was getting his Masters in Theology, had a course titled “Cross-Cultural Experience” that prepared him to go to Cameroon. But the Ebola outbreak at the time had disrupted the itinerary.

McCrorey then proposed Ghana to the group leader. There was no report of the virus there. Further, there was the appeal of Ghana as a haven for Black Americans historically, linking Civil Rights struggles and anti-colonial efforts in Africa. The political movement of Pan-Africanism opened Ghana to the Black diaspora. At a young age, McCrorey’s father told him stories about Africa, featuring rulers, spirituality, and culture.

When he arrived for the first time, at 35, Ghana exceeded his expectations. Little did he know that years later, he would be enstooled as a chief in Elmina, a town located south of Ghana that reverberates with a dark history. The castle of Elmina was a passage that offloaded enslaved Africans into the ships during the slave trade. What kept McCrorey rooted in this town was the community he found.

McCrorey launched his tourism company Africa Cross-Culture, a nod to his course title, in 2016. As a tour operator, he organizes trips to African countries like Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana. With the government initiative of Ghana’s Year of Return in 2019, the country has been using tourism as a tool for cultural diplomacy and national branding. Last month, he was bestowed as chief of tourism. He’s the first person to hold such a title.

OkayAfrica recently spoke with McCrorey about what the title represents, his identity as a Black American integrating back into Africanness, and the state of the Black diaspora.

Rashad McCrorey crown

Photo Credit: Rashad McCrorey

Any Black person could have been enstooled as Chief of Tourism. Why do you think you were chosen for this title?

The royal family and the village of Iture explained that their desire to make me one of their chiefs was based on my consistent presence in the family and in the community. When I moved to Iture in May of 2020, I joined the royal family. I did my traditional naming ceremony, which many Black Americans take part in when they return to Ghana. But, I also took it a step further than many other Black Americans. In addition to already living in the community, I immediately began attending the monthly family meetings.

I have paid all my family monthly dues. I paid all my funeral dues in addition to any contributions needed to support. I visit our king and family members weekly. I help in the community, attend events and even have disagreements in the subtowns as nothing is ever always perfect. When you live somewhere and interact with people consistently for close to two full years conflicts will arise, but our conflicts have brought us closer, created boundaries, and helped us develop a sense of trust and mutual respect. They continued to explain to me they didn't want to give me a ceremonial, non transferable stool such as developmental chiefs with the titles of Nkosuohene or Impuntuhen.

These titles at any given time one can be destooled and moved on from. When meeting with the Omanhen of Elmina Nana Kojo Condua Edina VI, he also spoke of my reputation as one of the first Black Americans in the Town of Elmina to have seemed to have chosen to fully integrate himself with the community. In return he has made me a part of the Ednia Traditional Council.

What are your duties in this role?

In terms of my title of Nserahwehen, or “Tourism Chief,” I have a successful tourism company where I take clients to different countries in Africa. Iture is the first subtown of Elmina. You can’t get to Elmina Town, or Elmina Slave Dungeon from the Accra-Takoradi Rd. without going through the village of Iture. The location is ideal for tourists and visitors. Hospitality centers such as One Africa and Mable’s Tables are staples in the African American community in the United States.

I have been sharing that tourism is more than just taking guests from one place to another. Tourism is planning, budgeting, marketing, branding, security, research, people management and more. With over 10 years of event planning experience this is a stool that I have been groomed for.

\u200bRashad McCrorey camel

Photo Credit: Rashad McCrorey

What made you come to Ghana during a pandemic?

I was already in Ghana when the pandemic arose. I arrived in Ghana February 27th 2020, for a tour group where I was hosting Americans for Ghana independence day festivities. Once news of the pandemic broke out in the United States and travel bans and border closings started to take place around the world, I decided to stay and not return home.

Did you start your tourism company before or after you came to Ghana?

I started my tourism company after my second trip to Ghana in March of 2015. I was previously a relatively successful New York City event planner. When deciding what business I wanted to invest in while in Ghana I said to myself, if I can get 30 to 50 people a week to party in New York City, I can get 30 to 50 people a year to visit Mother Africa. I came up with the idea in 2015, started working on the business in 2016, and hosted my first trips to Ghana and Egypt in 2017.

The Elmina Castle is historically known as a holding passage for enslaved Africans who were shipped to the Americas. How does it feel to be in close proximity to this significant place?

I have mixed feelings about being enstooled in a town with such a dark history. Elmina is historically known as the first place in West Africa that the Europeans colonized. Elmina slave dungeon is also known as the oldest and largest slave dungeon in West Africa. To have such an important role in a place where many of my ancestors had their worst nightmares take place, I feel honored and blessed to know that I am someone who firmly honors them and have all the best interest at heart to turn this former dark hole into a beacon of light for their descendants to return home to.

There’s a sentiment amongst some Black Americans that part of the revenue from hosting the Year of Return in 2019 by the Ghanaian government wasn’t directed to helping Black American communities. Their grievance is that it was used only to better the Ghanaian economy. In your opinion, is this a reasonable complaint?

Yes, it is a reasonable complaint. As Black Americans we are constantly looked at by other races and groups of people as cash cows. There is a secret financial war over the “Black dollar’’ that Ghana is also taking part in by their amazing outreach to Black Investors. It is up to the Black American community both home and abroad to not only advocate for more opportunities to leverage our money in other countries but also to create more business and opportunities in the states where we can practice group economics and develop more black owned businesses and resources.

Do you have a strategy for building positive, community-building relationships between Africans and Black Americans?

I believe communication and patience are the most important practices we can have during these early stages in our integration with each other. I consider 2019 the first official year where there is a boom in tourism and migration to the continent of Africa in these massive numbers. This is the first time in history an African country is a mainstream option for Black Americans to visit and move to. We are a multiplicity of different cultures fusing together. If we choose not to express patience and communication with each other many disagreements could spiral out of control and irreconcilable differences could occur. I believe the government, chiefs, community leaders need to meet with diasporan community leaders, investors and key people of influence in order to assure all parties involved get their needs met.

Do you miss America and do you ever think of going back to your family?

As we speak I'm currently home in New York City. I have been home for two weeks and will be returning to Ghana within the next month. Part of my position of Chief of Tourism is to bring Black Americans and diasporas home to Africa and in this case Ghana. So returning home to the United states to campaign, network and build relationships is a key part of my duties. Yes I miss my family very much. I miss my mom, my two girls, my family friends and I plan on visiting my father’s grave while I'm in the states.

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