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TRIBECA 2024

Yasemin Şamdereli, Deka Mohamed Osman • Director of and collaborator on Samia

“How can someone who was at the Olympics, who was so talented, end up in a situation like this?”

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- The director and collaborator discuss the importance of a Somali and refugee story that’s as uplifting as it is a harsh reminder of reality

Yasemin Şamdereli, Deka Mohamed Osman  • Director of and collaborator on Samia
Yasemin Şamdereli (left, © usbotschaftberlin) and Deka Mohamed Osman

Samia Yusuf Omar made headlines as one of two Somali athletes competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Her tragic but inspiring story is brought to life by director Yasemin Şamdereli in collaboration with Deka Mohamed Osman in Samia [+see also:
interview: Yasemin Şamdereli, Deka Moh…
film profile
]
, which has had its world premiere in the International Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Cineuropa: The story is inspired by true events, and there are also pieces of real-life footage in the film. What was important for you in terms of keeping close to reality, and what elements did you feel comfortable dramatising?
Yasemin Şamdereli:
Giuseppe Catozzella already took the first step of turning it into a novel, in which some of the characters are made up. For example, Ali is not a character that existed like that in Samia’s real life. He could have existed like that, but there was not an Ali. But storytelling-wise, it made total sense. The book is also written from a first-person perspective, and we’re in her head. I felt that as a scriptwriter and director, I didn’t want to have voice-over narration all the time. Because we only had 100 minutes maximum, we knew we had to be precise about which elements to use, and that's why we use flashbacks and the different timelines in parallel.

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Deka Mohamed Osman: One scene that, for me, had to be in the film is the ending. It’s so important that we didn't compromise. This is not a happy story; it’s something that has to make you think. It has to punch you in the stomach. I love the way it was shot and made. If it wasn’t for that scene, we would not have given a fair representation of her story.

Why did you focus on Samia’s time in the Libyan prison as the convergence point for the two narratives?
YS:
We could have chosen many things, but one aspect we really wanted to emphasise is that she became one of the refugees. She became a person without a face – a figure. That’s why I thought that this was a powerful way to tell the story and to say, “Look, how can someone who was at the Olympics, who was so talented, end up in a situation like this?”

And there are further implications of Samia’s story, specifically, on the global stage.
DMO:
We’ve seen throughout history, in our society, that there’s almost a bulimic repetition of stories. We need new stories as well to learn what’s going on nowadays. For the Somali community, I believe they will finally feel represented. I think this gives the opportunity to a whole community, a diaspora that’s been forgotten for the past 33 years while Somalia has been in a civil war – or has just been in complete anarchy, to be honest. It will give us back some dignity and power.

The ensemble cast is an integral part of the film.
YS:
A lot of them are first-time actors. We had to really go out and look for Somali people because we knew that we wanted to have an all-Somali cast and that this would be entirely in their mother tongue. It was a challenge because there’s a huge diaspora all over the world. Especially in the Somali community – and that's why Deka's work was so important – it was important that people saw someone who understands the culture, who’s respecting the culture, and was also able to talk their language. People wanted to know more, and they were also scared of being portrayed in a way where they would have felt like, “This is not really us.” So, we tried to put as much detail and attention into it as we could. It took over a year of intense casting.

DMO: I remember that Yasemin and I were looking for this girl who could be our main character for a long time. We wanted someone authentic. It was interesting because Ilham [Mohamed Osman] had never acted before. Obviously, as a sister, I’m proud of her, but as a filmmaker and someone who sees her from this professional point of view, I saw Samia.

YS: Deka and Ilham were some of the very first people who knew about the story and really got engaged with it. Our collaboration started many, many years ago. Deka’s mum helped a lot, as she’s really well connected in the Italian-Somali community. She got the word out. And that’s how we found a lot of people – by showing up, for example, at Somali festivals or places where Somali people would get together.

The relationship between Samia and her father is also striking.
YS:
We knew that there’s this strong bond between father and daughter. There is always this prejudice that all Muslim fathers are very strict and they’re very harsh. We wanted to show that, like with my family and with Deka’s, yes, they’re religious, but there are still so many families that allow their children certain freedoms – freedom to not follow 100% what their parents and grandparents used to do. We wanted to portray this relationship as something really supportive, kind of like saying he’s an open-minded person and doesn’t see a difference between his children, the girls and boys.

DMO: Being Somali, I know that type of prejudice in our community. And I was very lucky – I had a great man as a father: inspiring, present and supportive. He always pushed us to do what we wanted. Samia's father was portrayed in the same manner. The little things that they have in common – those things are so important to show, even for our community.

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