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Non-Review Review: A Girl From Mogadishu

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

One of the most striking aspects of discussing a biographical film is separating the biography from the film.

Ifrah Ahmed is a truly spectacular human being, with a truly incredible story. More than that, Ahmed is a hugely influential figure who has done an impressive amount of work to draw public attention to a very important cause. Ahmed is an inspiring figure, and very much worthy of all the praise and publicity that she has received. Her advocacy for women affected by female genital mutilation is a cause that merits support and encouragement. More than that, there is probably a great movie to be made about Ahmed’s story.

Unfortunately, A Girl From Mogadishu is not that story. The film is a disaster on a spectacular scale. The issue is certain not its choice of subject or subject matter; in the hands of a competent production team, those two elements could combine to create a truly engaging and exciting piece of film. The problem with A Girl From Mogadishu is the sheer level of creative incompetence involved. This is a film that often seems like it was assembled by a director who had only ever heard films described, rather than actually watched any of them.

A Girl From Mogadishu is cinematically illiterate, which is massively disappointing on a number of level. It betrays a talented international cast, an audience hungry for good stories told well, and a subject who is arguably one of the most important Irish social figures of the past decade and who very much deserves a much better spotlight.

To be fair, this is a recurring issue with biographically films. It is tempting to argue that the problem is particularly common among Irish biographical films, but that might just be down to the tendency of the Dublin International Film Festival to spotlight films like this. There are truly great people with inspiring stories out there, but too often those stories are handed to filmmakers who struggle to tell those stories in a way that works.

The story of Eileen Gray is a deeply fascinating tale about a woman struggling to assert authorship of her work, but Price of Desire is one of the worst Irish films ever produced. Ailbhe Griffith’s confrontation and mediation with the man who raped her is a story that is very timely and important in an era where female victims increasingly struggle to be heard, but The Meeting is an incredibly shoddy piece of filmmaking that is doomed by the inexplicable choice to offer point-of-view shots of its subject that put its audience in the perspective of the rapist.

A Girl From Mogadishu is a bad film about a great person, which creates an interesting tension. None of the basic building blocks of competent filmmaking exist within A Girl From Mogadishu, which is flawed from the ground up. This is true on both a micro and a macro level. This is obvious from the opening credits. The opening sequence plays out against a washed-out, blurred, whited-out background. There is an artistic and thematic reason for this; it suggests obscured childhood trauma. However, it also renders several credits (in white font) illegible.

A Girl From Mogadishu often plays a like a bad student film. The film seems to have been scored from a temp soundtrack of the kind of music employed on low-budget awards fare trailers, the heroic synth that rises slowly and triumphantly. It’s a corny beat in any case, but it becomes insufferable when the film decides to play over every emotional beat. Similarly, early action sequences are cranked mercilessly; slow motion shots are intercut with sped-up shots that make it look like the production team found the editorial equivalent of a soundboard.

Even the basic cinematic language is horribly flawed. At one point, early in the film, there is a slow iris fade-to-black from a war torn city that then leads to a smash cut to an idyllic beach sunset. At another point, the camera tracks its two lead characters down an escalator in the National Conference Centre, the camera clearly positioned on an escalator going in the opposite direction. The shot ends with a pan around to reveal that the camera is sitting on the escalator, the equivalent of a pan across a landscape that closes on the tracks laid down for the camera.

However, the biggest problem is with the script. The script is terrible. It seems like it was stitched together from a bunch of writing assignments, a collection of seventy odd scenes developed by different writers expanding each scene from one line on a Wikipedia entry. A Girl From Mogadishu does not have an arc, or an attention span longer than fifteen minutes. The first half of the film is told in a linear fashion, before suddenly becoming a flashback sequence half-way through during an address to the United Nations.

The climax of the film finds Ifrah having a crisis of confidence and moral fortitude. This is standard in a biographical picture; the main character is told that they cannot do something, doubts themselves, and overcomes that doubt. It’s a triumphant heroic arc that can be employed well. However, A Girl From Mogadishu cannot be bothered to seed this arc across the entire film, so it introduces it, develops it, and resolves it within fifteen minutes. The same is true of Ifrah’s relatives, who are forgotten for large stretches in the middle of the film so other stuff can happen.

The script isn’t just flawed in those big conceptual ways. It is flawed even within individual scenes. It is a movie that seems to have nothing but contempt for its audience’s intelligence and cognition. Information is repeated multiple times, often in clumsy voice overs from the protagonist that provide exposition that is completely unnecessary. Early during her time in Ireland, Ifrah gets lonely and cannot sleep, so crawls into bed with a friend. Then her voice over explains that she was lonely and could not sleep, so crawled into bed with a friend.

Perhaps the most glaring example comes at the worst possible moment, after the film has acknowledged that Ifrah was a victim of female genital mutilation. A male doctor assures her that he has sent for a female doctor to look at her. The Somali translator explains, with subtitles, that the male doctor has sent for a female doctor. Then the voice over reminds the audience of information they have received twice in the past thirty seconds, that the hospital sent for a female doctor. Then the female doctor arrives. This is just the most extreme example, but not the only one.

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the film struggles with tone. If it cannot tell a coherent story, how could it manage a topic as delicate as female genital mutilation. Immediately following the discussion of the practice, and the horror inflicted on its victims, the film tries for a cheap laugh. In an English class, Ifrah asks to know the word for “down there”, which is obviously important in articulating her trauma. However, the film plays it as a goofy joke. The (male) tutor does a terrible Hugh Grant impersonation, before settling on, “That’d be private. Private parts.”

To be fair, this isn’t even the worst impersonation in the film. A Girl From Mogadishu feels like the cornerstone of some weird “Irish Labour Party Cinematic Universe”, featuring very strange takes on contemporary Irish politicians. Stanley Townsend makes a relatively passable take on Joe Costello, but the film treats the marriage of Joe and Emer Costello as something from an American sitcom by casting Orla-Brady-in-a-funny-wig as Emer Costello. Similarly, Niall Buggy makes an unconvincing President Michael D. Higgins; too tall, bald, and doing a poor impersonation.

Focusing on these individual issues undersells how terrible A Girl From Mogadishu truly is. Even ignoring the structural element, few individual scenes work. Most are just slapdash, such as Ifrah’s scenes with a young aid worker who seemingly only saw his script five minutes before shooting. At one point, the character lets Ifrah into a truck, cuts off his line mid-sentence, walks around the car, and then continues his line after a weird pause. At another point, he observes that “the Minister” that Ifrah will be meeting “is a man” like he’s auditioning for Austin Powers.

A Girl From Mogadishu is just embarrassing for everybody involved, and a massive disappointment given the caliber of the subject with whom it was working and the quality of the story that it was supposed to be telling. It’s a disaster.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

6 Responses

  1. I found this review offensive. I saw the film in Mill Valley; I liked it and so did everyone in the audience. I did not find the information “repetitive” and I did not notice the supposed errors in filmmaking that you found. I thought the film was gripping and the Somali scenes were realistic. You were obviously bored hearing about women’s troubles and stories and experiences. I suggest you only review men’s movies in the future.

    • Hi Scarlet.

      While I appreciate your input, I am afraid your assertions are incorrect. I suspect that your observation that I am “bored hearing about women’s troubles and stories and experiences” would come as a surprise to directors like Olivia Wilde, Susanne Bier, Marielle Heller, Lynne Ramsay, Karyn Kusama, Nia DaCosta, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Kelly Fremon Craig, Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Fox or countless others to whom I’ve given strong reviews and whom I consider among the very best directors working today regardless of gender.

      I think that women’s perspectives are important. However, I also feel that there are enough great women directors and writers working today, and telling enough engaging stories about women, that we don’t need to pretend that a film has merit solely because it is about a woman or directed by a woman. To do that would be disingenuous and dishonest, and demeaning to women in general. Supporting women doesn’t mean pretending that A Girl from Mogadishu is a good film. In fact, to pretend that it was would be degrading to all involved.

      I do appreciate your input, though.

    • Scarlet, I submit that if you did not find the errors in the film that a professional critic did, you may not have the film education and experiences that Darren has. The quality of a film is not determined by the percentage of the audience that liked it or not.

      • That’s not fair, Harvey.

        Everybody is entitled to their opinion and Scarlet is no more or no less entitled to her opinion than I am to my own. While I object to her insinuations about my character – and, to be frank, find something insanely condescending in the idea that a story by or about a woman immediately merits a critical “pass”, given the number of truly great stories by or about women released every year that succeed without such a “pass”, and that feminism is rooted in the idea that we shouldn’t condescend to art by or from women because it is capable of being just as good as any other art – I am glad she enjoyed the film and appreciate her input.

  2. I have a problem with slash-and-burn reviews like this one which makes me believe that the people engaged in making a film are downright criminals. As for Scarlet’s comment that everyone in the audience liked it is a regular problem for critics, as moviegoers like Scarlet believe the test of a film’s quality is how well it’s liked by a regular audience. If she did not find the faults that you did with the film, well, she should remember that she is not a critic and does not have the education and experience to judge the way a critic does.

    • I don’t think they are downright criminals. I do think that they are incompetent. And I believe, given the importance of the subject matter, that incompetence is insulting.

      I’ve talked about this elsewhere in the blog, but I’m a firm believer in “the gentleman’s two.” Basically, if you are baseline competent and aren’t outrageously offensive, the floor for a review score is set at two stars. (The inverse is also true. Unless you’re truly dazzling, the ceiling on a review score for a first time viewing is typically set at four stars.) I believe you have to earn a one star or a five star review. And, to be fair, I have given more five stars than one stars, so I’m not a harsh critic. However, believe me when I say that this earned its one-star.

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