2014-07-24
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Somaliwood: Columbus has become a haven for Somali filmmaking

Jef Vidmar
“I can say I’ve started the revolution”: Abdisalam Aato directed Rajo, one of several feature-length DVDs from his Olol Films company - Jef Vidmar


By sara smith
April 19, 2007

Abdisalam Aato sits in front of a computer screen at his office in Jubba Mall, a Somali marketplace on Morse Road, translating an animated short he created for the web from his native language into English. Hanging above him on the wall are half a dozen glossy movie posters for Olol Films’ latest releases—works that have posited Aato as the Scorsese of Somali
filmmakers.

He came to the United States in 1996, after spending more than three years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He settled in Columbus in 2001 and has spent the last six years making the city famous, in Somali circles, as the epicenter of Somali cinema. He has written, directed and produced nine feature films and
documentaries, with two more in production, in his studio on Cleveland Avenue.

“Columbus is like the Hollywood of Somalia now because the biggest production studio is here, and that’s us,” he says, clicking around the Olol Films’ website. “So all the famous Somali actors are here in Columbus.”

Getting a box-office count for Aato’s films is impossible. He says most often bootleg copies of his films are shown in the United States, Europe and Africa, so there’s no telling how many people have seen his work. But a YouTube post of one of his animated shorts, Warmooge, which Aato claims is the first Somali animation ever created, has received about 18,000 hits.

“All this stuff is kind of guerilla filmmaking,” he says as he clicks to play another short film on ololfilm.com.

Aato says he relies on friends and volunteers to complete his ambitious feature-length projects. But no one at Olol Films has any formal training. In fact, Aato had never held a video camera or used a computer until he came to the U.S.

But he says he’s always known he wanted to make films.

“My cousin took me to see my first movie in Somalia,” he says. “I was 5 years old. We saw Spartacus.”

“After that night, I would use all the money my parents gave me to see movies. I would see every movie that came out.”

Going to the movies is no longer an innocent pastime in Aato’s homeland. In 2006, international media reported raids on movie theaters in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Armed soldiers stormed theaters under orders from the United Islamic Courts, shutting all of them down.

“Islamic militia came to rule the city in 2006,” Aato says. “They said nobody can play music and no films.”

“People do die in the movie theaters there, but there are isolated places where people can still see movies.”

Music and movies have been banned in Somalia for more than a year, but Aato says cheap Internet access is rampant in the country, which is how he’s reaching people with his work.

“I just got a call from a guy in Mogadishu to tell me he likes our movies. And he sends me e-mails, like fan mail too,” Aato says.

Aato’s films aren’t only reaching the nether corners of Somalia; some films have been screened in movie theaters all over the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Rajo (which translates to Hope) was the first full-length Somali film, and it debuted to packed houses at both Studio 35 and a theater in Minneapolis on Thanksgiving 2003. A soundtrack featuring music from Somali performers Abdi Janan, Iskilaaji and others was released with the film.

“People didn’t believe we really did this,” he says, pointing to the poster for the film. “I mean, we used a helicopter in this movie. People didn’t believe we could do it. It was huge.”

The poster and DVD cover for Rajo
features a shot of Columbus’s skyline in the background, three expensive cars gleaming in the foreground and a helicopter hovering overhead. It’s surprisingly slick and mainstream, which is exactly what Aato was aiming for.

“This movie was the first, and people will always remember Columbus was the place that started the whole Somali film industry,” he says. “I can say I’ve started the revolution now because other Somalis want to do movies—and they call me.”

Somali feature-filmmaking is a revolutionary concept. Not only have films been outlawed in the war-torn country, but the concept of movies is so new that the Somali language doesn’t have a direct translation for the word “film.” Somali speakers use an Arabic word—or the Somali word for “play”—when discussing movies, Aato says.

Despite the novelty of filmmaking in Somali culture, the Columbus Somali
community (which is the second largest in the country) acknowledges Aato’s work as an important asset to the community.

“I think Aato’s work translates the change of living in Africa, in the third world, and transitioning into living here,” says Mohamud Dallin, a local Somali entrepreneur who recently applied, unsuccessfully, for a Columbus City Council vacancy. “He is the only one in this country doing such a thing.”

Dallin says the Somali immigrant community sees Aato’s films as a vehicle to bridge generation gaps among the community and educate the larger society on Somali culture. He says that basic needs—such as housing, jobs, and goods and services—are well established for Somalis living in Columbus and that it’s good to see the arts added to the local culture.

“He has a vital part in the community,” Dallin says. “And I think he has the potential to break into the larger community, the mainstream.”

Aato does hope to find a broader audience for his films. He’s added English subtitles to many of his features, and his documentaries and newer releases have been produced in English. The subject matter and some of the wardrobe for his films reveal strong Western influences, and he says he’s taken heat for that from Somalis who hold more traditional cultural norms.

Xaaskayga Araweelo is a slasher thriller that Olol Films released in 2006. The female lead, Samira (played by local Somali actress Fathiya Saleban), is a newlywed and possible man killer. It’s a lot like So I Married an Axe Murderer—without the comedy. The themes are obviously taken from Western civilization, and it’s not at all what you’d expect from a culture known for its conservatism.

“We’re a society,” Aato says. “We have everything. We have gays. You don’t have to hide that from the people. That would be cheating.”

In an effort to bring hot-button issues into the open within the Somali community, Aato has turned his camera on Somali politics. He’s using his filmmaking skills to develop bartamaha.com, a website that features music videos produced in Columbus by local Somali musicians, as well as short films and coverage of news and issues of interest to the local Somali community.

“I wanted something that has the politics, has the music, has the short films and documentaries,” Aato says, clicking on a short video clip of a famous Somali poet who recently visited Columbus. “And this is a way to get things to the people in Somali quickly.”

“I have so many ideas I want to go after,” he says. “I would like to go back to Somalia, or film the refugee camps in Kenya, but I’m afraid to go back.”

Aato says he’s asked some Somali political leaders who visited Columbus tough questions on camera for bartamaha.com and that he’s afraid of how his work is being received in some circles back home. He says his fear of being killed because of his work is keeping him from making the trip home.

“I’m working for the people,” he says. “I’m not based in any group, but I’m afraid some might think I’ve done something against them.”

Far from the unrest and censorship in Somalia, Aato is in Hollywood mode, casting for his next project, Ambad, (which translates to Lost). It’s a story about a young Somali man who gets his girlfriend pregnant and is forced by his family to marry her to cover up the scandal.

“I’ve cast an unknown Somali actress. I really wanted to give her a chance to shine,” he says. “A year from now, every Somali will know her face.”

Source: The Other Paper, April 19, 2007