Forbidden to watch films as a child, he now directs Somalia's top shows

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Forbidden to watch films as a child, he now directs Somalia's top shows
Somali youths shoot a scene at a restaurant for a show that the filmmaker Abshir Rageh oversees as the head of film production at Astaan, one of Somalia’s largest cable television networks, in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, Feb. 22, 2024. Rageh had to sneak out of his home to see bootleg Indian films and “Rambo” at a makeshift cinema, but now he’s creating dramas that draw tens of millions of online views. (Brian Otieno/The New York Times)

by Abdi Latif Dahir

MOGADISHU.- At the shout of “action,” two actors, costumed in black blazers and sunglasses, erupted into a spirited shouting match, gesticulating wildly as one demanded that the other convince his daughter to marry him.

A cameraman and a boom operator, sweaty under a scorching sun, moved in to capture the altercation in close-up.

Then the director, Abshir Rageh, seated in a foldable chair, removed his headphones and called, “Cut.”

From the props scattered about, to the crew members running around with scripts in hand, to the sophisticated recording equipment, this looked like any film set in Hollywood or Bollywood or Nollywood.

But the sandy alleys near the shoot — and the band of security officers slinging genuine AK-47s — were signs that this was somewhere else. In case there was any doubt, the sound of real bullets being fired and ringing out in the distance before the scene was filmed made clear this was anything but your typical location.

Rageh works in one of the world’s most unexpected cities for an emerging auteur looking to forge his cinematic reputation: the seaside capital of Somalia, Mogadishu.

Here, in a city and a nation inching wearily toward stability after decades of factional fighting and terrorism, Rageh stands out as one of Somalia’s most prolific and astute filmmakers.

At 33, he is the head of film production at the privately owned Astaan, one of Somalia’s largest cable television networks. Over the last few years, Rageh has created, produced and directed some of the biggest television hits in this Horn of Africa nation.

They include the two-season series “Habboon,” a soapy show about a lovelorn couple navigating conservative and traditional societal norms, which garnered tens of millions of YouTube views. His latest series, “Dhaxal,” a drama about the intricacies of inheritance in Somalia, began airing this month.

Rageh is also overseeing several other productions, including a comedy show, a cooking competition and a game show.

What motivates his work, Rageh said, is a desire to make TV shows that confront what he calls a stereotypical narrative about Somalis that centers on piracy, terrorism and hunger.

“I focus on storytelling that can change lives,” Rageh said in a recent interview. “We have to own our own story and show that we are more than that.”

The prominence and popularity of Rageh’s shows depend in part on their use of simple plots and relatable characters. But they have also garnered attention at home and abroad for frankly tackling contentious issues like tribalism, the role of women in society and what it means to be an upstanding Somali citizen.

“The civil war in Somalia destroyed the creative avenues that allowed us to think through the challenges facing our society,” said Bashiir Mohamuud Badane, an actor, educator and artist who has worked with Astaan to create children’s shows and educational music videos. “These productions are a lifeline.”

Chatty and always sporting a cap, Rageh is from a generation born and raised after the Somali state collapsed more than three decades ago. Since then, young people — about half of Somalia’s population of 18 million is younger than 14 — have stepped in to revive industries and deliver government services in the face of relentless crises.

For filmmakers like Rageh, the increasing affordability of equipment and the access to social media platforms for both education and distribution have been empowering.

None of the dozens of women and men who work on his crew has ever been to film school, Rageh said, but the crew members have improved their production skills by watching YouTube tutorials and taking classes online.

Rageh encourages them to be multi-hyphenates — cinematographers who double as sound engineers, makeup artists who act. He is also very hands-on himself.

On a recent evening, he arrived at the Astaan studios in Mogadishu to supervise the shooting of “Kala Dooro,” or “Choose Between,” a series dealing with a young graduate navigating the traditional expectations of marriage with her desire to further her education and career.

After watching a couple of takes of a tense scene between an adult son and his sick mother, who wanted him to worry less about her health and more about his future, Rageh intervened.

“You have to believe your own acting if our viewers will believe it too,” he told them.

He then had the actors repeat the scene four times until they got the intonations just right.

Almost all the performers he hires have no prior acting experience. “My one condition to them is that they have to be willing to learn and improve,” he said.

Rageh was born in 1991 in Beledweyne, a town about 185 miles northwest of Mogadishu. His parents were market traders who struggled to provide for their 11 children.

The family fled their home multiple times as fighting engulfed their agricultural region, but they always returned. Rageh fondly remembers the town, largely because it’s where his love for storytelling began.

On some afternoons, he would sneak out with friends to a makeshift neighborhood cinema, where bootleg copies of Indian films and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies were screened.

“My parents never wanted us to go to this cinema,” Rageh said. “Movies were seen as sinful and immoral.”

After high school, Rageh studied public administration at Somalia University in Mogadishu.

While still in university, he found a job shooting and editing videos and later began making short films and public service announcements. In 2017, he joined the media team of then-President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. But filmmaking tugged at his heart, and in 2019, he joined Astaan.

Rageh’s entry into film direction and production dovetailed with a crucial time in Somalia’s history.

Before the civil war began in 1991, Somalia supported a thriving theater and music industry, along with a smaller film sector with directors like Abdulkadir Ahmed Said.

But with no major productions during the war or for many years after, Somalis watched translated Arab, Mexican and Turkish shows. As the country has stabilized in recent years and Somali-born filmmakers in the diaspora have made more films, many Somalis at home were eager to see themselves on screen, too.

Still, making movies in Somalia remains challenging.

Security is a major concern, hindering Rageh’s team from freely filming scenes in the capital or its outskirts. The loud din of Mogadishu’s three-wheeled rickshaws often impedes shooting outdoors. Rageh also said it was initially hard to get anyone to audition — for fear performing in a film would smear their or their family’s reputation.

“People see villains and believe they are villains in real life, too,” said Adan Farah Affei, an actor, cartoonist and painter who had leading roles in two of Rageh’s shows. When his on-screen wife scorned him during the “Habboon” series, he said some members of his clan called to say they were ready to defend him.

“I told them this was fictional,” Affei said, laughing.

As they become bolder in the themes they explore, Somalia’s nascent filmmakers remain wary about contravening the country’s conservative norms. Even a hug or a handshake between different genders can lead to widespread criticism.

“Religious leaders think the shows are introducing immorality into society,” said Badane, who recently acted in “Arday,” a series documenting the lives of Somali high school students.

Another challenge facing Rageh is financing. For now, Astaan’s owners pay for his projects. However, he said he hopes to one day see more independent investors or even global media firms supporting the budding industry.

For now, he’s counting his blessings.

For one, more Somalis want to get involved, with some 2,000 people showing up to audition for 100 positions in “Dhaxal.” Advertisers are also increasingly eager to see their brands placed on screen.

Somali actors also are gaining some global notice outside the country: Affei was cast in an upcoming film directed by Somali Canadian singer K’naan.

But for Rageh, his biggest achievement so far is personal. His mother, who once prohibited him from watching films, now regularly watches his shows and receives compliments from neighbors.

“She is very proud,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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