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Meet Lula Ali Ismaïl, Djibouti’s ‘First Lady of Film’

Lula Ali Ismaïl was in her mid-thirties, living in Canada with a steady job. She was at the stage of her life at which society dictates you should be settled into a traditional career path, but she is not one for being conventional.

And so, armed with little but a good story idea, she boarded a flight to her native Djibouti, ready to begin a new career. 

In 2019, eight years later, the Cinewax Online African Film Festival streamed an array of wonderful films. But there was one in particular that  had everyone talking. Dhalinyaro, meaning “youth” in Somali, is a coming-of-age feature film set in Djibouti. It is directed by Lula Ali Ismaïl.

“I love that people felt a connection to the film; for me that was important. We all remember what it was to be 17, 18 years old, and so I think in many ways it was a universal story,” said Ismaïl, speaking to the Mail & Guardian from her home in Djibouti.

Ismaïl is the first woman to produce and direct a film in Djibouti, earning her the affectionate title of “Djibouti’s First Lady of Film”.

“I’m very flattered, but you never do it for the accolades. I just had a story that was haunting me; I just needed to tell it,” she said, laughing at the nickname.

A Djiboutian story

Dhalinyaro’s plot centres around three teenage girls, Hibo, Asma and Deka, who are about to sit their final exams before entering university.

Three very different personalities, from very different class backgrounds, with different dreams. 

Wealthy Hibo is set to go to Paris to study further. Deka, from a middle-class background, remains conflicted between going abroad and remaining  in Djibouti. For Asma, with the good grades, leaving the country to continue her studies is out of reach. 

Their differences are underpinned by an enduring sisterhood, and it is impossible to not be drawn into their lives as they grapple with “what next?”, while also dealing with the trials and tribulations of love, sex and heartbreak.

Central to the story are the class differences between the girls and the choice Deka faces about studying in another country. 

“I wanted to challenge this notion that you must leave Djibouti to succeed in life. As for class, my aim was to be as authentic as possible: the film reflects our class system. Interestingly, it was not a talking point in Djibouti — it would only be during Q&A’s abroad that people would ask about class,” Ismaïl said.

Before filming began, Ismaïl had to raise funding — half came from public and private-sector sources in Djibouti; the other half was put up by her French co-producers — and obtain all the necessary filming permits. With no acting agencies to call on, Ismaïl had to get creative when it came to casting the film. She printed out brochures and handed them out at various high schools, calling on interested students to talk to her.

She then held two rounds of auditions, finally selecting Amina Mohamed Ali, Bilan Samir Moubus and Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed. “Their eagerness and maturity stood out. This was going to be a three-month shoot and I needed people that were not going to drop out. I knew I could count on these girls.”

One thing that stands out about Dhalinyaro is that it was not made for the Western gaze. All too often, the only stories about Djibouti that make international headlines focus on its geostrategic location on the Red Sea, and the superpowers that have built military bases there. 

“This is a Djiboutian story — an African story — with universal appeal. I wanted to portray a close as possible image of what it’s like to be a 17 or 18 year old in Djibouti, first and foremost for the people of Djibouti,” said Ismaïl.

Dhalinyaro touches on some subjects that are not widely spoken about in Djiboutian society — such as sex, teenage pregnancies and extramarital affairs — and Ismaïl was initially nervous about how it would be received. But the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. 

“People want their stories told by one of them. When the film was screened in the country, the audience were happy to see streets they recognised; their day-to-day lives on the screen. And that’s why I say, this is a film owned by the people of Djibouti — they made it happen.” 

Djibouti is Ismaïl’s muse, but it is also a character in the film, visible in the clothing of the characters, the subtle references to the country’s history, and the easy interchange of Somali and French.

“Djibouti has a lot of stories that need to be told, and the most powerful way is through art — be it film, music, painting or poetry. It is my hope to see us have our own film industry. There are a lot of talented people here and now courses around filmmaking are on offer at the University of Djibouti.” 

Coming of age: Writer and director Lula Ali Ismaïl cast the three stars of her first feature film for their ‘eagerness and maturity’. Dhalinyaro was the talk of the Cinewax Online African Film Festival in 2019

Ismaïl’s own journey into filmmaking is an inspiration in itself. “I was not one of those kids that wanted to grow up to be a filmmaker or an actress; in fact, I actually fell into this field.” Living and working in Canada while in her mid-twenties, she wanted to do something to challenge her shyness and decided to enrol in acting classes in Montreal. For about two years she participated in school productions and then began auditioning for mainstream roles.

Creating her own door 

She got a few small roles in TV shows, but wanted more. With the words of Ava DuVernay, another black filmmaker, ringing in her ears — “I’m not going to continue knocking that old door that doesn’t open for me. I’m going to create my own door and walk through that” — Ismaïl decided to create her own door.

“I could not get substantial parts in Montreal and it was disheartening, so I thought, I’m going to go home to Djibouti and make a film there in which I can act. So I decided to write a short film, which would then allow me to play a lead role.” 

In 2011, she did just that, directing and starring in Laan, a short feature that examines the friendship of three women against the backdrop of the prevalence of khat in Djibouti. Khat, or miraa, is a narcotic leaf which delivers a sense of euphoria when high, and is used widely in Djibouti.

“The consumption of khat is something which has a real impact on people in the country,” said Ismaïl. 

Laan and later Dhalinyaro are both stories about women and girls. This was not premeditated. “I don’t put myself in a box and say ‘I’m going to make films about girls or women.’ My process begins with me looking at what inspires me and what issues I am addressing. So, in the case of Laan, the reality is the social and economic consequences of chewing khat are faced by women, as they are the ones that run the house.” 

Laan premiered at several film festivals, to acclaim. “Things went so smoothly when it came to making Laan that I thought, why not do a feature, unaware that the two are very different. Had I known how challenging making Dhalinyaro would be, perhaps I would not have embarked on it,” Ismaïl says.

Her advice to budding filmmakers is to focus on who you surround yourself with. “When I decided to pursue filmmaking full time, many people would have been like ‘Are you crazy?’ That’s why you need people who believe in your dreams. There were many times … when I wanted to give up, but I was lucky to have a team and co-producers who encouraged me to keep going, I also had a very talented co-writer.”

Ismail is now working on a documentary project. There will not be a sequel to Dhalinyaro, she said, much to the disappointment of its many fans. “In my mind we have closure — the last scene said it all.”

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Samira Sawlani
Samira Sawlani
Samira Sawlani is a writer, journalist and analyst, specialising in East Africa.

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