The Art that Binds: Idil Ibrahim on Film, Unity and Empowering Somalia Monday 26 December, 2011


Artists have restless minds. For many of us, it’s not enough for us to know what goes on behind the scenes of a film, but also what it arouses in the audience. The fear of not having our vision received the way we’d like stops many of us from continuing, or worse, even beginning our […]


Idil Ibrahim, photo by Annie Escobar

Artists have restless minds. For many of us, it’s not enough for us to know what goes on behind the scenes of a film, but also what it arouses in the audience. The fear of not having our vision received the way we’d like stops many of us from continuing, or worse, even beginning our creative projects. Yet, when you know that your creative vision serves a larger purpose—perhaps, to heal, to unite, to educate—it’s easier to move past that doubt. I think Idil Ibrahim’s commitment to telling stories with these intentions has been key to her success as a filmmaker.

A member of New York’s tight-knit independent film community, Idil followed her passion to start her own production company, Zeila Films. The daughter of Somali Parents, raised in the United States, and having known many communities across the country and abroad, it became important for her to, as she says: “bridge cultures, communities and perspectives through art.” As executive of her own company and a contributor to Double 7 Images, while still working on local and international creative projects, Idil shows me that if your problem is too many creative ideas, you don’t have a problem, you have a gift; and it really is worth sharing with the world. Here, Idil discusses what makes film so powerful, contemporary challenges facing Somalia and how art and the Diaspora can help.

What drew you to film-making?

I was always interested in film and television as a means of communication by sharing things like ideas, information and experience. However, I fell in love with film while I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. I was inspired to be a filmmaker after taking a class with my professor, the late Loni Ding, who was an amazing Chinese-American documentary filmmaker based in the Bay Area. Loni taught us production but also analysis and I devoted all my time to the creative process. Soon, I realized that I was spending more hours working on my film classes than the rest of my academic coursework. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this is what I wanted to do in life.

What is special about what film can express?

I find film special because of how enchanted I become when I watch an amazing film and I would love to be able to have the same effect on others. I appreciate the way film transports viewers into another time and place. I love that film can educate, entertain, inform and potentially change the way people interact with reality. All art forms are powerful tools of expression with the capacity to connect and reach others.

Idil Ibrahim, Dadaab Kenya, photo by Brenda Phillips

Would you say your heritage inspires your work and what you hope your viewers will take away?

The name of our production company comes from Zeila (Saylac), a city of antiquity, is surrounded by the sea on three sides and served as a center for trade, intercultural exchange and the sharing of ideas for many civilizations. My parents are Somali and I grew up in the States in incredibly diverse areas so I had a multicultural upbringing. I have wanderlust and love meeting new people and connecting with others–which is always expanding and reshaping my personal views and life outlook. I value difference but try to find points of connection between people and places, so I approach my work as such, with an international approach focusing on personal stories, fiction and narrative, that resonates with others.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Somalia? What are the mis-perceptions? 

I think many people want to write Somalia off as a failed state, full of conflict, humanitarian disasters and disease. Somalia and Somalis worldwide have immense obstacles to overcome, but I believe that Somalia has potential. There are so many individuals within the country and abroad working day and night to change their current reality for the better.

There are many pressing issues in addition to the famine, such as the ongoing conflict and political instability, the threat of extremism, and so on, but I believe in our global society we must remain as engaged and emotionally invested in Somalia as we are in other places. My vision for a healed Somalia would be a place free from conflict and oppression and an end to the cycle of violence that persists in many parts of the country.

How do you think art helps?

Art is a form of expression and it is quite subjective and personal. Applying art to conflict and post conflict settings can help serve as a tool for dialogue, expression, awareness building and hopefully healing and peace-building.

As you know, our organization aims to unite women across Africa and the African Diaspora. How do you think people from across the Diaspora can get involved in helping Somalia?

I believe it is always important for individuals to foster ties with others regardless of background or location. There are many ways people from all backgrounds, Somalis within Somalia, and members of the Diaspora can get involved. The situation in Somalia is complex, so it’s important to understand the context and then find ways to engage, but any step made as an attempt to ease human suffering is crucial. Somalis are resilient and despite the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis there are numerous individuals forging forward with life and working towards the betterment of society.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

The term “living unchained” symbolizes my personal effort to live free—free from social expectations and conditioning. It reminds me to embrace similarities among people as opposed to focusing on difference, and encourages me to be true to myself, living with integrity and remaining passionate about life and work.

I love Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I know that may come across as really cliché, but I honestly strive to live my life as the quote suggests.

Be sure to visit Zeila Films online and stay in touch with them via Facebook and Twitter.

Also, learn more about Somalia and what the Diasporan community is doing to help with the issues Idil discussed at Soobax Blog, The African Future and I Am a Star.



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