The must-watch film, from Lula Ali Ismaïl, paints a novel picture of Djibouti’s capital city through the story of three friends.
“Cinema Africa” is your guide to African film. Writer Ciku Kimeria is highlighting new movies and documentaries that tell fascinating stories or questioning prevailing narratives and occasionally returning to the classics that paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers.
If you’re having a tough time recalling the last movie you watched from Djibouti, it’s likely because you have never watched one before. With an almost non-existent film industry in the country, Lula Ali Ismaïl, tells a beautiful coming of age story of three young female Djiboutian teenagers at the cusp of womanhood. Dhalinyaro offers a never-before-seen view of Djibouti City as a stunning, dynamic city that blends modernity and tradition—a city in which the youth, like all youth everywhere, struggle to decide what their futures will look like. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, family, dreams and love from a female filmmaker who wants to tell a “universal story of youth,” but set in the country she loves—Djibouti.
The story revolves around the lives of three young friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, with completely varied attitudes towards life, but bound by a deep friendship. There is Asma, the conservative academic genius who dreams of going to medical school and hails from a modest family. Hibo, a rebellious, liberal, spoiled girl from a very wealthy family who learns to be a better friend as the film evolves and finally Deka. Deka is the binding force in the friendship, a brilliant though sometimes naïve teen who finds herself torn between her divorced mother’s ambitions to give her a better life having saved up all her life for her to go to university abroad, and her own conviction that she wants to study and succeed in her own country.
Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to Ismaïl on her groundbreaking film, her hopes for the filmmaking industry and the universality of stories. Read on for the conversation, and stream Dhalinyaro
What was your inspiration for telling this particular story?
I wanted to talk about youth. It’s a theme that’s been made into movies in many places round the world, but not in Djibouti. I wanted to explore both what they have in common with youth elsewhere, but what makes them unique. Dhalinyaro which means youth in the Somali language captures the unique experiences of teenagers at this turning point in their life.
I never set out to make the three protagonists all female, but this was where the story took me. As a female filmmaker, I think there is a unique way that one tells women’s stories as you have direct insights into the lives of women and girls.
This was a film about youth, but it was also a film about contemporary Djibouti. Why was this important for you?
From the beginning, it was clear to me that Djibouti was going to the fourth character in the story. I wanted to show Djibouti in a natural way—focus on the day to day life. Djibouti isn’t just a harbor, it’s a country, it’s a city, it’s a place that is developing where the youth are connected to the youth around the world and are part of a shared humanity. I wanted to capture both that uniqueness, but also the universality of youth.
Deka’s determination to stay and study in the university in Djibouti instead of going to study in France, is a key theme in the film. Tell us a bit more about this.
This theme was very important because not everyone can go abroad and not everyone can get a scholarship. Even more than that, I wanted to show the idea that people can remain in their African countries, develop them, make them prosper and live their lives there. It’s also important for me to show that she remains in Djibouti by choice. She makes an active choice to remain in her home country. Showing that she could have left the country if she wanted to. Her mother wants the best for her and has struggled to save up enough as a divorced single mother to send her to France for university. Deka has amazing grades too, but she chooses to remain in Djibouti. It’s important to tell this story when many African youth are despairing and feeling as if the grass is always greener only in the West. I want to show Africans succeeding in Africa.
“It’s the first feature film in Djibouti and is actually talking about the lived experiences of Djiboutian youth.”
What does the film industry in Djibouti look like? What was it like filming in the country?
The industry really does not exist in Djibouti. It’s a country where there are plays, poetry, but not really a local film industry. Amazingly, both my short and feature films were supported financially by the Djiboutian public and private sector. As such, even if it is a very nascent industry, Djiboutians are happy to support it. They are happy to see this film made by Djiboutians for Djiboutians and the rest of the world, that captures their unique, rich, diverse experiences. The country has a lot of young, talented youth including those studying film at the university and the future of this industry can be bright. Recently an institute was set up in the country to develop the movie industry and tap into these talented youth. The film industry needs trained technicians.
In terms of filming, there were no obstacles at all. It was very quick and easy to get authorization. Shooting in the streets is also very easy and I hope this encourages other filmmakers to consider making more films in my country.
Lula Ali Ismaïl
How did you select the cast?
We don’t have any casting agencies in the country. I went to different high schools—met and interviewed 300 girls, shortlisting the three. I was amazed by the depth of talent in the country.
What has the reception been like?
My film is currently showing at different festivals throughout the world. It was broadcast by Canal+ Afrique till end of January and we hope to release it soon in France. In December 2019, Dhalinyaro was released in cinema in Djibouti. This was a wonderful moment for me.
The film has been extremely well received. It’s the first feature film in Djibouti and is actually talking about the lived experiences of Djiboutian youth. Audiences around the world have been able to relate to it and have loved it. Everyone was once 17 or 18 years old and remembers that point in their lives—whether they are New Yorkers, Lagosians, Londoners, Nairobians etc. The experiences of youth throughout the world have very many similar elements—questions of identity, decisions, dreams etc. Many people felt as if the film was talking about them, even if they don’t know where Djibouti is.
I want this film to be seen all over the world. This is my dream for all films and particularly African films. I want to see our films getting distributed widely as films.
For updates on where the film will be showing in future, please follow our page.
What has been most surprising to you?
We had a Q&A session at the first screening in Djibouti and most people said they were surprised to see themselves in the film. I was surprised by their surprise. I was always determined to tell their stories. People really value seeing themselves reflected in film. When shooting the film, I felt as if all of Djibouti was behind me, supporting me. I want to thank the co-producers who did their best to make sure the film existed. They believed in me. I also thank the Djiboutian and French crew who made the film a reality. This is in addition to the funders including Fonds de Développement Économique de Djibouti, La Francophonie plus all the other public and private funders in Djibouti who helped finance my film. And of course, my fellow Djiboutians.