Tribeca Festival : Samia / Exclusive Interview with Directors Yasemin Samdereli and Deka Mohamed Osman

Tribeca Festival : Samia / Exclusive Interview with Directors Yasemin Samdereli and Deka Mohamed Osman

Samia : Samia is an assertive, independent young woman growing up in a place that isn’t very welcome to young women who are independent and assertive. Raised in a Mogadishu, Somalia torn asunder by civil war, all that young Samia wants to do is run. Despite the harassment from local militias saying women shouldn’t be involved in sports, running is a bright spot in her tumultuous life. Training in a deserted stadium, on a track pockmarked by mortars, she is determined to go to the Olympics like her hero, Mo Farah. That determination pays off when, at the age of 17, she’s selected to represent her country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She returns to Africa with an even brighter flame burning to go to the 2012 Olympics in London. But circumstances have changed, and the path toward fulfilling her dreams is not the one she’d anticipated.

Based on the true story of Samia Yusuf Omar, director Yasemin Samdereli brings Samia’s life to the screen with a beautiful visual flair and a warm, empathetic approach. Boasting fantastic performances, Samia is an inspirational portrait of a young athlete who won’t let circumstances stop her from reaching her dreams. And like millions of others escaping nations ravaged by war, she risks her life for the hope of a better future.––Jason Gutierrez

Directed by : Yasemin Samdereli
Director : Yasemin Şamdereli with the collaboration of Deka Mohamed Osman
Producer : Simone Catania, Dietmar Güntsche, Anja Karina Richter, Francesca Portalupi, Michele Fornasero, Martin Rohé, Joseph Rouschop, David Herdies, Riccardo Russo, Christoph Fisser
Screenwriter : Yasemin Şamdereli, Nesrin Şamdereli, Giuseppe Catozzella
Cast : llham Mohamed Osman, Fathia Mohamed Absie, Fatah Ghedi, Elmi Rashid Elmi, Waris Dirie, Riyan Roble, Zakaria Mohamed, Kaltuma Mohamed Abdi, Mohamed Abdullahi Omar, ina Mohamed Ahmed, Shukri Hassan, Armaan Haggio



©Courtesy of Tribeca Festival



Exclusive Interview with Directors Yasemin Samdereli and Deka Mohamed Osman



Q : Yasemin, I believe you were born in Germany. I’m curious to know, what’s your entry point of knowing Somalian athlete Samia Yusuf Omar? Obviously she had quite a story involving the Olympics and all that, so how did you get interested and tackle this project to begin with?

Yasemin Samdereli: I did not know Samia’s story. I did not know until the producers Simone (Catania) and Michele (Fornasero) contacted me. And they wanted to do co-production. So they introduced me to the story and I was deeply touched by it. And I read the book that Giuseppe Catozzella had written about Samia’s story, and I was absolutely touched by it. That’s how it started. And then I realized that Samira’s story was out there because a German comic book writer had done a graphic novel. So then I realized, okay, the story is known, but I was not aware of it.

Q : Could you talk about the casting process of hiring Ilham Mohamed Osman, who I thought was perfect for this role. So could you take us through the audition process?

Yasemin Samdereli: It was funny because this goes back eight years. So I think we reached out in Italy because the production company is based in Italy and we wanted to find people who could help us. One of the first people we met were actually Ilham and her mother. Saade, her mother, is also a great lady who’s very active and a very knowledgeable lady. And I think she, and Ilham—you can maybe explain or tell that part—must have heard about [our project] it and then they got in contact with us.

Q : Oh, really?

Yasemin Samdereli: Deka [Ilham’s sister] can tell us how about that.

Deka Mohamed Osman : I’m honored and very grateful for this interview, so thank you. Me and Yasemine, we met in 2017. I remember the day we met because the producers knew my mother. Because she’s a big lead role in the community for migrants in Torino, Italy. As a mediator, she works with psychologists and she helps people that just arrive in Torino. So she’s very knowledgeable about the whole process that these people go through while coming to Italy, and she assists during the therapy sessions as well. 

She was such a knowledgeable person and one of the main representatives of the Somali diaspora in Torino. The production just said, okay, let’s maybe put Yasmin in touch with this family. So we invited them for dinner in our house. I was still going to university.

My sister Ilham was still in high school. The house was just like our usual normal life. And we hear obviously that there’s this director and she’s introduced to us, Yasemin. That’s the first night we met, I think. And so we all sat on the floor, eating Somali rice that my mom prepared.

And we started to talk about the project. So essentially the producers started to try to gather the money to make this movie happen. This was 10 years ago, so it’s been 10 years of preparation.

Yasemin comes in the picture, obviously, because they were looking for a good director. Yasemin’s background was perfect because she was born in Turkey. She had two cultures. And with her Muslim background as well, she could really understand the Somali community, and she turned out to be one of the best people I’ve met. And I love her so much because she not only knew these things just because of her background, but because of her sensibility and because of the person she is.

And so everything worked out perfectly. Once they came to our house, I remember that I was still in university as I was telling you. The first thing I did was giving you guys the pictures that I took in Somalia. It was the first time I’d been there. And that kind of was like a base to really understand how Somalia looked, how the streets looked and all that.

So that was my first contribution to the project. And then I left, I went to New York, I did other things. And during this whole process, we were still looking for means to make this movie happen, right? And that’s what Yasemin obviously was writing.

And maybe you can tell about that part, but the beautiful part about the casting and how we chose this young lady—my sister, my little sister—to become the main actress. It was super crazy and but organic, very natural and she resembled her as well. Obviously me, Yasemin and the other producers said, Oh my God, she would be perfect.

Maybe we should train her and maybe do it. But years passed and obviously she was doing her thing. She’s not an actress like she is now. But she wasn’t studying acting. This had been her first experience. And this is even why we’re so proud of her, because she’s been incredible. But yeah, we went to do castings for the main character, even in Nairobi for the kids. We were looking for the kids’ actors. And that’s where we found Zacharia and Diane, these two incredible, beautiful, lively, young talents.

And we just saw it. We saw them and we’re like, they’re perfect. Like these are our characters. And that’s when we started to train them. But that was different than how Ilham became our main character because obviously there were other two good options I remember in Djibouti.

So we went all the way to Djibouti, to Elizabeth. It’s crazy, incredible, like  a remote little city. I don’t even know if we should call it a city. It wasn’t even a city, right? Yeah, it was very small. They were hunting the goat, our friend, the goat, the same night to cook him or her.

I don’t know. So it was like super remote. After that we received the video castings of Ilham as well, because during the years, she just said maybe I should try. I’ll give it a go. And once she said that she sent the video in and obviously I wanted her to be part of the project. I didn’t think it was gonna be like that, but I’m so glad that we lived this experience together, even if it’s weird to work with your sister, your little sister.

Yasemin Samdereli: When I met both of them the first time, obviously, I saw pictures. I could see an amazing young talented woman, so I saw the talents right away because you could see it in her work and with Ilham it was amazing because we went through the whole casting process.

We were where we would say, “Look, let’s do this together and let’s see what would happen.” And she was just amazing. She was really what we were looking—someone who had the strong cinematic strong appearance in front of the camera, but also someone who we could work with.

So I knew I have to find people who are able to talk about it. So they could open up because obviously what you want as a director is to find people because they were first time actors. So we looked for people who could actually understand the complexity of acting in front of a camera and how you sometimes have to really be brave to do things which take a lot of bravery to do in front of a camera.

Deka Mohamed Osman: In a movie like this, it’s not standard acting because we have very hard and tough situations to portray as well. So to be able to do it for the first time like that, I think it’s just a great talent. I’m proud of all of them.

Q :  It’s so true. All the acting was really actually spot on there. Yasemin, could you talk about real footage and film footage in this film? I thought that was very effective to combine actual real footage with film because the audience can immerse themselves what really happened back then. Talk about your conscious choice on that one.

Yasemin Samdereli: Yes, it was. As you said, it was a conscious choice because we knew at some points that is the most effective way showing the reality because everything else would have been something we could have done, but we knew this is a real story.

This is a mere story and all the terrible things which happened are real. So at some point we did a test and we knew, okay, we can mix this. And we were fine. We even wanted the audience to know this is not fiction. We wanted them to see, this is real footage. This is real. This is a real explosion. This is real what you see now. This is the horrible reality.

Q : I heard that Samia’s mother is also an athlete, and she competed at the national level. Is that true?

Yasemin Samdereli: Yeah, it is. What we know is what author Giuseppe wrote. He talked to Her sister, the author of the book. And so he knew some of the information, for example, like that the mother used to play basketball. And I think it was a family in the old times. That’s why we also use some of the old material because we wanted to show that there were times in Somalia’s past where it was very different where women could easily wear a headscarf but also easily go without.

It was not like forced upon them. It was your free will to dress as you like. And there was a time where, they used to call Somalia the Switzerland of Africa because it used to be doing quite well for many years. People were quite open, liberal. They had funky music, they had the bands, they had the women wearing, this typical 70s style miniskirts. So I think that was one way to say, look at the status quo, What we now think of Somalia is it’s only one little part of a very long rich cultural story of a land. We just of course know the last, let’s say 30 years, and it’s not really capturing the complexity of the culture and the land.


©Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

Q : I see. I’m curious to know that, during the Somalian civil war, with Al Shabaab, controlling the war-torn nation, were there bans on female athletes to do any kind of sports activity or anything?

Deka Mohamed Osman : Zero introduction of how things historically went. Somalia is a very complex country with a lot of history that not a lot of people know. In 1991 after the dictatorship ended, these warlords started to control different little parts of Somalia, especially the capital Mogadishu. Even if it was a dictatorship, it was one of the most progressive countries in Africa. At the time it became Somalia, it became just chaos, anarchy, because the dictatorship fell, the leader of the country just left. And then there were mostly these tribal tribes and clans each of which were represented by un signore della guerra, which is a Lord of the War, a warlord.

So in that ambience of 1991, the Black Hawk down happened. The Americans were there. The United Nations was there for about three, four years, looking for one of these warlords.

But they couldn’t find him. and it was just everybody for themselves, and obviously with no government, everybody started to do justice for themselves. And in that climate, that atmosphere that social turmoil, every warlord was leading a section, okay?

Depending on what clan you were from, you were part of a section. It was honestly just a mess. It became a civil war. And it became more of like a clannistic war—it was about tribalism, basically. But then it became even stronger when Al Qaeda got into the country somehow.

These groups were getting more religious and more religious, not liberal as they used to be, so the whole situation gradually changed for all the civilians in the country, especially for women. Because before that, as Yasmin was saying, they didn’t have to wear a headscarf.

They were like, only old women in the house or maybe married women, they would have this little headscarf, which wasn’t even a full-on hijab. So it was cultural, Somali. It’s always been a Muslim country. You have to remember that it has always been mostly majority Muslim…99%, almost 98%. But it wasn’t extreme.

After the arriva; of these warlords, Al Qaeda got involved and Al Shabaab was born. Al Shabaab, it’s a small terrorist group. Young people started to join. And they started to get brainwashed and obviously they got the power somehow, because in those years, 2006 even, there was like a big genocide from Ethiopia and that’s when the big migration of Somalis really started. In 2006 in Europe, during the un signore della guerra, you saw all these deserts crossings and the Mediterranean crossings.

Mostly they started because, okay, Al Shabaab was something, but it wasn’t, people were okay with it. They were just trying to hold on to their culture, their identity. And so they became more religious and based everything on that. Then schools were not a thing. Everything was destroyed. Somalia has really been in a dark place for many years, forgotten.

It wasn’t even in the statistics of the UN. It was just, terra di nessuno, like nobody’s land, it was complete chaos. After many years the liberal party, the government, which has always been liberal has tried to like, run the country again, to have elections and regain power.

They triee to fight Al Shabaab, push them outside of the capital with attacks and all that. Now, nobody was safe. Bombs, attacks, civilians were caught. You will see, in fact, Yusuf, the father of Samia, and many other people all died in the bomb attacks or shootings, just, random terroristic gestures, Samia was living through that time. And the crazy thing is that there has had a lot of changes because when she was born, Somalia was pretty free.

It was different back then, and to see yourself stripped of every right, it got worse and worse. And it’s always more strict. How women were dressed in their intimate clothes—they were controlling even that. If you had your menstrual cycle, you had to wear red socks. So in case somebody wanted to rape you, they just knew that you were not rapable because you were impure at the time.

Q :  Obviously when Samia was competing, there were not enough gym facilities to train, and back then, mens’ and women’s gyms were divided.

Yasemin Samdereli: Obviously we don’t have a lot of insight about that part. At some point, she was training with other athletes, They were a little community of people who trained together. If there were times where it was, let’s say, safer, they would find little places where they could train and support each other.

But as far as I know, what we know is they trained sometimes in areas like a bombed-out stadium, which was just gravel. And the scene where she did not have her own shoes is true, she borrowed shoes, at the Olympics.

So basically, as I said, I think that’s why people also get, really emotional because you can tell this is really a story of an underdog having really nothing. They did not even have, and that’s a fact, she did not have good nutrition. You know, of course they were poor people. They ate, what they found, but, compared to other people from rich countries, they really had nothing. they trained with whatever they could find. They try to help each other. but of course they knew how much they were missing.

They were really aware of what the others have and how the others trained. but still Samia gave it her best and she managed to qualify, which is an amazing achievement for someone from this background.

Q : After Samia competed on the Beijing Olympics, it’s in the film that, she ran without a headscarf. So that raised the flag for Al Shabaab to monitor her afterwards. It’s mind-boggling to me and hard for us to understand the concept of Al Shabaab controlling the nation.

Yasemin Samdereli: Obviously we had only 90 minutes, so we could not show the complexity of it. So once she got back there were like millions of people celebrating her, loving her, for representing a Muslim lady there at the Olympics.

And there were others, not as many, but there were still others who would threaten her, who would write horrible letters. So once she got back, we of course made it very short. We really minimized it. But there she was. For a few months I think she even hid for a few months. She was even in rescue camps. But it was very difficult. She could not get any papers by that time, because there was no government. It was, everything was like chaos.

So that’s the situation people were facing. So what she in reality did was to go to Addis Ababa. She fled to Ethiopia. And she stayed there like for, I don’t know, I think six months trying to get papers, trying to get official help to run with the Ethiopians, but since she didn’t have any official papers, they wouldn’t let her. They said, we need official papers, but there was no official government.

She could not go anywhere.She really got stuck in a horrible situation at some point in Ethiopia, where she had already lived for, I don’t know, I think six months or something. Then she realized “I will never get papers. Either I go back, which of course was very dangerous, or I try my luck.” And that’s when she tried, then became a refugee It took her more than a year just to reach me. No, in reality, it was almost two years. \

I think she tried even once on a boat that did not work. Something happened. And then on the second time, it broke down, People panicking, people not knowing what’s going on.

And then she jumped into the water with two or three other people and the others were rescued. But I think three people drowned on that boat. So yeah, it’s a very complex story. Of course since we only had this a hundred minutes we had to really shorten it to make it like but the reality is much more complex as usual.

Q : I have to talk about this. In the Beijing Olympics, even though she was trailing like eight, nine seconds behind  the first runner, but her step towards the Somalian’s female athletes of the future was a very remarkable achievement. I’ve heard about other Somali female athlet such as Maryan Nuh Muse (the Somali Splinter), so could you talk about current situation of Somalian athletes, what’s going on now?

Yasemin Samdereli: To be honest, I don’t have enough insight on right now, where they stand.

Deka Mohamed Osman: I can say it. For us, it was so funny because as we started filming in Kenya with all the actors and all the actresses, At one point, there was this news online of this Somali girl running.

She was the worst. She didn’t even have the technique. It was just like, she was placed there by high people for no reason, because basically she didn’t have the talent, she didn’t have the preparation, nor the resistance to compete and she was representing Somalia somewhere in America.

I think it was in a small competition. It wasn’t the Olympics or anything, but they took videos and it went viral and people were saying how embarrassed they were. And that was so funny because we were instead doing the movie on Samia. And we already started filming, so we were in the process of the set. This girl was related to someone in the sports committee in Somalia.

So there’s a lot of corruption and just I don’t know how to say that in English, but she just got in somehow, not for merit, but because she was related to someone. But I think still, if you look at the reality of most of the athletes all over the world, if it’s poor countries they have hardly anything. Every four years they’ll be allowed to show up almost like extras.

You know what I mean? Where they show up so the others can shine as  stars of the show. In a lot of the poor countries, if it comes to the Olympic committees, the support of the actual athletes is not amazing or anything.

They don’t get much support and they don’t get much money or anything. And if you see it, this multi billion dollar show, it’s a huge thing. You ask yourself, is that really the best thing this amazing big organization can do for the athletes? Because without the athletes, nothing would be possible.

It’s mainly the big stars, which then get some profitable, commercial contracts. Look at Africa. They’re happy when they can feed their families. Let’s say a talented athlete has a huge family and all live off that one person So there’s also the tremendous pressure on these people for the money they get. What I’m trying to say is I’m sure it’s not what it should be like.

These people should be much more protected. They should be given more. And it’s also a bit, almost perverted because they are supposed to be amateurs. The Olympic idea is a non profit organization, but it’s such a bizarre idea because if you look at the Olympic structure, how huge it is, the money behind it it’s really so bizarre.

It’s so bizarre. You have people with hardly anything and then they are part of this multi-billion dollar show like and what do they get? questionable, very questionable.

Q :  I believe that people understand that Samia she was coming from a poor country and was competing at her best, no matter what. And I guess the audience understood that’s what they were clapping and cheering. Could you talk about what kind of conversation you had with Samia’s family and that ended up incorporated into this film?

Yasemin Samdereli: Yes. As I said, the story is a long one because it started by talking to the family, like to the sister, so that there were really long conversations where they would talk about what she knew, because obviously she was also not on the journey. So Giuseppe based his book on this kind of conversation. and we of course adapted the book into a movie.

Because the book is written in the first person form and it’s all in her head and it goes chronological, we  really knew this is not how we can tell the story, you know/ It’s like we have to be really compact with the movie. So we tried to stay in contact, but for many years we were not in contact with the family.

This is how we wanted to do  the film. Then the producers got in contact again with the family. They tried to introduce the project again to them and say, “look, this is how we’re going to do it.” For me, I knew we will never picture the real, because I’ve never met Samia, so we can really not really get the real Samia.

But we all felt like, the bigger picture is that Samia’s story gets told. And that we talk about Samia. And we talk about the issue of refugees and how important that is.

We see the dignity of every human and how we have to see it exactly that way. It’s because nowadays in Europe, for example, more and more right wing thoughts and ideas are getting popular. The voices against these people getting stronger and stronger, but it’s really important to also raise and say, stop, no,

So we of course, had to deal with these things and we tried to be honest and to get them on board. And I think they understood and appreciated that at least some of the story gets told. Y’agree ?

Deka Mohamed Osman : That was a great answer.

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