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Movie Review (Glasgow Film Festival): ‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’ Is A Critical Look at the Healthcare System

Movie Review (Glasgow Film Festival): ‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’ Is A Critical Look at the Healthcare System

Director: Khadar Ayderus Ahmed

Writers: Khadar Ayderus Ahmed

Stars: Omar Abdi, Yasmin Warsame

Synopsis: In times of misfortune, Guled and his family have to push themselves to the limits in order to reunite with their family.


Although set in the far distant, heat-baked lands of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, the tale of The Gravedigger’s Wife may well resonate with any average American. Finnish-Somali director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed has crafted a heartfelt and tender examination of the social injustice surrounding healthcare and the lengths we will go to for the ones we love.

Thought it is co-produced by a range of European countries, including Ahmed’s native Finland, The Gravedigger’s Wife feels intrinsically and powerfully authentic as it represents the impoverished on the outskirts of Djibouti City, a world in which death is never far away and survival is the only thing that matters much. The skein of struggle running through the movie is always shown in a grounded, naturalistic way which never exoticizes the country. Instead, we see the genuine brutality of everyday life and how it affects the citizens who live there.

Guled (Omar Abdi), is a gravedigger who makes his living chasing down jobs from people whose loved ones have just died. It is gruelling work and fairly sparse. There is also a grim irony in the fact he makes his living depending on the deaths of others – in one scene he and his fellow gravediggers chase an ambulance all the way to the hospital in the hopes of a body to bury. There’s a darkly humorous undercurrent to this situation which Ahmed maintains throughout. Guled does what he does for his wife Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) and son Mahad (Khadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim). It is clear his life revolves around them, and he works hard to make them happy. 

Things aren’t going so well though. Mahad is constantly skipping school, and is completely uninterested in receiving an education, countering that his father doesn’t have one either. Worse still, Nasra is ill: a kidney infection means she needs constant antibiotics and $5,000 surgery if she is to survive. This news sends the family into a spiral as Guled desperately tries to cobble enough money together to keep his wife alive. A broken Guled finally decides to walk to the rural village where he grew up – facing the conservative politics which drove him away in the first place – in a last ditch attempt to earn enough money for his wife’s surgery, while Mahad takes to the streets, completing various tasks for the locals for cash.

The storytelling in The Gravedigger’s Wife is neatly done. Ahmed frames beautiful early scenes showing the couple in benignly intimate moments, such as when Guled bathes his ailing wife. There’s a tenderness to these scenes but also something of a weariness, as though the couple have gone past the hormonal excitement of their early courtship and are now comfortable and content with one another. These scenes are juxtaposed with their interactions with Mahad, whom they struggle to control. A slowly building dread begins to creep in for Guled: he can no more save his son than he can his wife. It all stacks up excellently to a more thrilling third act, as the tone changes somewhat and Guled goes for broke.

Abdi is great as the beleaguered Guled. Though blessed with a big smile and a genuine, affable nature, Abdi imbues Guled with a slow burning exhaustion. A telling moment comes around halfway through when he counsels a friend of his who is lovelorn and hopeless; Guled gently chides his friend for wasting time worrying, when there are bigger problems to deal with, before matchmaking his friend and the object of his desire in one fell swoop. It’s a moment that sums up Guled well, and Adbi is so natural you almost forget this is a scene playing out.

The cinematography plays an important part in establishing the world of Djibouti. Arttu Peltomaa juggles the urban jungle with all of its color and business with parched, dry landscapes, completely barren and devoid of life. Yellows and browns abound here, mixed together in a muddy texture, with the occasional greenery appearing throughout – almost as though representing a kind of hope. 

Amid all of the exquisite visual design, is the basic premise of a man fighting against a hopelessly cruel, indifferent system which cares nothing about whether he lives or dies. As he struggles in vain to make some small semblance of a difference to those he loves, Ahmed is asking us the question: are we really okay with this?


Grade – B



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