A Conversation with Filmmaker Idil Ibrahim

Idil Ibrahim is a U.S. based filmmaker of Somali descent. She is an alumna of University of California, Berkley and attended graduate school at NYU. Her award winning film projects have led her to travel all over the world. She has a passion for social issues and marries that passion to her talents as a filmmaker, actress, director, and producer. Her film projects have screened at some of the most prestigious film festivals such as Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and Los Angeles International Film Festival just to name a few. Her extensive filmography includes films such as Fishing Without Nets, Homecoming (African Metropolis), Am I Going Too Fast?, Trece Años, and Laredo, Texas amongst many others. Her most recent project led her to Senegal to produce and direct a short film called Sega, starring Alassane Sy, which explores the issue of migration. Idil is currently based in New York City, but is often at an airport near you.

IA: Idil, it's really wonderful to have the opportunity to speak with you. What is the earliest memory you have of feeling moved by a film?

Idil: I am not sure if I can recall a specific moment, per se. What I remember most are the more immediate responses of feeling fully immersed in a film, emotionally connected, with full on suspended disbelief. The films I love are the films that stay with me and linger in my brain for a few days. But if I had to pick one film, my earliest memory of being moved by a film was probably Splendor in the Grass (1961) which I saw when I was pre-teen.

IA: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker and what did the road to that realization look like?

Idil: I officially knew I wanted to be a filmmaker at UC Berkeley when I took Professor Loni Ding’s filmmaking course. She was such a passionate professor and a practical filmmaker--she wanted all her students to fully understand all aspects of filmmaking and feel confident doing so. It is no coincidence many of her former students are filmmakers! The “road to realization” continued through various production internships, wonderful mentors, a nurturing and supportive creative community of friends and fellow collaborators and a relentless commitment to storytelling by any means necessary! Lol. Now I get to do what I love full time and I am very grateful.

IA: Are there filmmakers that helped shape your filmmaking tastes and technique?

Idil: Oh yes, of course! I proudly consider myself a film nerd and I am inspired by so many filmmakers. There are many, but a few of my favorite directors are Andrea Arnold (Wasp, Fish Tank, Red Road), Ousmane Sembene (Black Girl), Walter Salles (Central Station, Motorcycle Diaries), Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Fernando Mereilles. There are also many contemporaries and colleagues whose work inspires me on a regular basis. Teachers come in all forms.

IA: What does an average day look like for you when you're actively working on a project?

Idil: Filmmaking and production is akin to cooking. I often use this analogy because there are always different phases at different stages. At the height of production, I’m pretty busy from early morning to late at night. However, the intensity and demand varies, so sometimes there are quieter, more reflective periods and other times you are lucky to get 2 hours of sleep. The level of demand varies from production to production, so it is never monotonous.

IA: You are passionate about humanitarian and social justice issues, particularly in relation to migration and global education. Do you consider yourself an activist filmmaker?

Idil: Interesting question. I am definitely an activist at heart and a true Berkeley girl. Nina Simone once said, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” So I, too, always keep this in mind.  I do believe in the power of artists to reflect the times. And though I am passionate about social issues and this is often reflected in my life and work, that’s not to say every single thing I hope to create is a work of “activism” or an “activist film.” I believe in the power of storytelling to build bridges to people and effect change, at any level.


IA: How does your background as a Somali-American immigrant influence your filmmaking?

Idil: I feel that being Somali-American influences my filmmaking in that it allows me to cross cultures and gain insight into different worlds, having grown up straddling two worlds and different cultures myself. I find I can relate to many different types of people, from varying backgrounds and walks of life and I consider it a gift.

IA: What advice do you have for younger filmmakers who are trying to get started in the industry?

Idil: My advice for younger filmmakers trying to get started in the industry would be to encourage them to continue to create and realize their artistic vision. I’d also encourage collaboration and urge young filmmakers to become a part of a creative community where one feels nurtured and supported. I always tell myself and others, do not create boundaries where they do not exist. I think the advent of new technologies and devices is a good example of this--there are so many tools and outlets that lend to storytelling, filmmaking and mass communication, for better or worse. The key is that it is much more accessible to so many people.

IA: I had the privilege of seeing Fishing Without Nets in theater when it came out. You played the female lead in that film. How did that happen?

Idil: I was a member of the crew of Fishing Without Nets as Director/Producer of the “Making Of/Behind the Scenes.” Cutter Hodierne (director) then later asked me to play the character Abdi’s wife.


IA: What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you while filming internationally?

Idil: The weirdest thing that ever happened to me internationally was having to ride in a roach infested car for four hours at dusk in rural Uganda. I hate roaches, but I had no choice. How the car was full of roaches, I’ve got no idea! But there is a first for everything, I guess.

IA: As a filmmaker is there a particular film that you've worked on that will always be your baby?

Idil: Sega (film) is my “baby.” It’s a story that was living in my head for years before I filmed it. It was truly a dream to make and our cast and crew was phenomenal. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. In Senegal, there is a phrase “Nio Far” which means “We are one” or “We are Together.” That was the ethos for everyone that was part of the Sega film community--it truly is the film the village made. I say it’s a short film with the heart of a feature.

IA: What's your dream future project or collaboration?

Idil: I’m a dreamer. I have many future dream projects and long wish lists of people I’d love to creatively collaborate with. But at the top of my list? Probably anything related to Oprah Winfrey!!! I get chills just thinking about it.


Ifrah Ahmed is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad