In the past the people of the Somali Republic successfully cultivated a flourishing entertainment sector that boasted dozens of cinemas, festivals and hundreds of singers, poets and actors.
Today, with the Somali people largely optimistic about their country’s future and the prospect of lasting peace; big opportunities for the business savvy Somali and non-Somali entrepreneurs are beginning to emerge in the country.
Somalis always had a great appetite for entertainment, because it’s both static and mobile; timeless and nostalgic. It represents a piece of the country’s heritage that a Somali in any part of the country or the world can enjoy in the form of a song, a stage-play or a book.
SOMALI ENTEPRISE in this article will highlight the historical pedigree of Somali Cinema, Film-festivals and their cross-continental clout, as well as the many opportunities the new generation of creative Somalis have both in the country and in the diaspora.
Out of Africa’s four largest international film festivals, two were annually held in Mogadishu. They were known as the International African Film Festival and the Mogadishu Pan-African & Arab Film Festival (MOGPAFIS).
Hosted in the luxurious seaside Al-Uruba Hotel, these Somali festivals were important cultural scenes of cinematic expression for Africans and Middle-Easterners for much of the mid-20th century.
The 1961 film Love Does Not Know Boundaries by the Somali director Hussein Mabrouk, released a year after the Somali Republic’s independence represents one of the oldest feature length films independently produced by an African director. This was followed by the Somali-Chinese collaboration film The Horn of Africa (1961).
It won the highest prize, the AFRICA award, at the closing ceremony of the 4th International African Film Festival held in Mogadishu. The film showcased the Somali Republic, and was praised by the festival’s international jury for its excellent portrayal of the new republic’s progress in political, social and economic life.
Somali directors were pioneers behind important African cinematic organisations such as the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) established in the 1970s, while the Somali Film Agency trained young African directors in Mogadishu.
According to the MOGPAFIS Management Committee, the Somali Republic in 1983 had 51 cinemas across the country, with 16 of them located in the capital of Mogadishu.
These cinemas showcased both foreign films such as the popular James Bond series and home-grown films such as Miyo Iyo Magaalo (The Town and the Village) and Geedka Nolasha (Tree of Life) by Abdulkadir Ahmed Said, which won Best Film in the International Short Film category at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema.
In 1985, the Somali director Said Salah produced A Somali Dervish, a historic epic with a budget of $1.8 million and a running time of over 4 hours. This made it at the time by far the most ambitious and expensive African feature length film to date.
The epic film featured hundreds of actors and extras, and followed the life and campaign of Sayyid Abdullah Hassan, the leader of the 20th century Dervish State. Seven international languages, including Somali, were used for the film’s dialogue as well as three regional dialects.
What is evident from these historical examples is that the country not only had established itself as a hub for talented actors, directors and producers from across Africa and the Middle East, it also maintained, through the guidance of the Somali Film Agency, a respectable home-grown film sector with movies and documentaries that received critical praise from industry experts.
With the re-establishment of the Somali Film Agency confirmed in the 2020 budget by the Somali government, the Somali people have a chance to reinvent their global image via films and documentaries, both through government funded and independently produced projects.
The film Dhalinyaro (2017), shot and produced in Djibouti by Somali director Lula Ali Ismaïl, is a great example and has become a viral hit with young Somalis on social media after it was released for streaming in 2020.
There is now a whole new generation of Somalis both in the homeland and in the diaspora that yearn for films that feature actors that look like them and with stories that are about Somali culture, history and modern Somali experiences.