Idil Ibrahim is an award winning filmmaker and has worked on and produced award winning film projects that have gone on to screen at the top international film festivals such as the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Toronto International Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, Cinéma du Réel in Paris, and Sundance Film Festival, among others. Idil was also selected as one of five women directors to direct a short film for Glamour Magazine’s The Girl Project for “Get Schooled,” a series focusing on girls education around the world in Malawi, India, Brazil and the United States. She is a recipient of the 2017 Extraordinary Women Awards held by the 92nd Street Y, a hub for women to learn and inspire others by sharing their knowledge, ideas, insights and strength. A graduate of UC Berkeley, her work has led her around the world and extensively throughout Africa. She was most recently in Senegal, where she directed and produced the film Sega, starring Alassane Sy (Restless City, Mediterranea), which examines the issue of migration and repatriation.
Congrats on your 92Y Awards Extraordinary Women 2017!
Thank you so much. It is such an honor to be among such incredible, talented and dynamic women. 92Y is an incredible institution and does so much incredible work on social initiatives to better this world. To be recognized in this way, I still can’t believe it. I am still pinching myself!
For those who don’t know who you are, please, tell us where were you born?
I was born in Oakland California to Somali immigrants and raised there and in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC. I consider myself “bi-coastal!”
When did your parents immigrate to America?
My parents came to school in the US in the late 60s when there were a few education initiatives specifically for students from Africa, both studied in Somalia and completed their studies in the US. In fact, they met here. I often wonder if they would have met in Somalia–my father was from way up North and my mom was a city girl from Mogadishu. My father won a scholarship that allowed him to attend Columbia University. Other relatives had their schooling interrupted by the war and it’s been incredibly impactful to see how everyone worked hard to continue their studies, despite all the odds.
My parents were big supporters of education for girls growing up in Somalia, what is your take on the influence of education especially for Somali girls and girls in general?
My parents and grandparents were huge supporters of girls education as well. The sky was the limit, and their motivation instilled confidence in me and a desire for continuing education. My grandmother, one of the most intelligent and strong women I know, was illiterate, mainly because she did not receive or have access to formal primary school education. But she never stopped learning or navigating in the world. She was insistent on all of us sharing what we learned in school and I would teach her phonics and reading. I think early education for Somali girls and girls everywhere is critical. There is evidence that access and equality in education, specifically girls education, will improve not only improve their lives, it will also improve the lives of their families and communities, and greater society. Thus by empowering girls education and fostering their dreams, girls can change the world. Malala Yousafzai is a great example of this. In my travels I have met so many amazing girls and remarkable young women around the world defying the odds and their circumstances. It is inspiring.
You have worked on films from civil war in Somalia, technology in Nairobi to refugees in Syria… what is next for you?
I am currently in post production on a short film I wrote and directed called Sega. We filmed it in Senegal and it examines the issue of migration and repatriation through the story of a young Senegalese man named Sega, who was unsuccessful in his attempt to migrate to Europe and finds himself back in Dakar, Senegal. There are over 65 million displaced people around the world and I was interested in exploring migration through the lens of someone who finds himself back home.
When did you know you want to be a filmmaker?
I learned I wanted to be a filmmaker while at college at the University of California, Berkeley. I had a professor, Loni Ding, a wonderful Chinese American filmmaker who taught us every step of filmmaking. She empowered us to share our visions with others and emphasized that each of her students had something unique to share with the world. It is not a coincidence a large number of her students have gone on to be professional filmmakers and storytellers.
What advice you have for young female filmmakers?
My advice for young female filmmakers trying to get break in is to “go create!” I encourage them to cultivate their creative and artistic vision by any means necessary. Nowadays, there are so many avenues and various platforms beyond borders for storytellers to share their visions with the world such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc. Technology has shifted in a way where we can record just about anything and share it. Many people have made films using their phones. It is easy to feel discouraged and think you need so much more, but I think it is important to take the first step to feel empowered. I’d also encourage young filmmakers to find allies and creative colleagues and friends they can create art with. Film is inherently collaborative, so finding the right community to help bring your vision to life is key. The right creative community helps create a safe space to nurture and support each other as artists and in turn you can grow together.
Is your filmmaking a way to highlight social issues?
Nina Simone once said, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I always keep this in mind. Especially now more than ever I believe in the power of storytelling to build bridges to people and effect change, at any level. Films move me, so I hope to continue to work on or create film that, in turn, moves others.
Do you have a favorite one of your films and why?
So hard to pick! I am a bit of a shape shifter and wear many hats in the indie film world. I love each project I’ve worked on in some capacity in my various roles–producer, creative producer, actor, behind the scenes, director, etc. I’ve been able to see the world, collaborate with so many wonderful people from all walks of life, and learn in the process. I’d have to say one of my favorite films is my short Sega, by making it I was able to bring my creative vision to life in a way I haven’t before. We had such a wonderful cast and crew and working with our lead actor Alassane Sy (Mediterranea, Restless City), was a dream. He is such an incredible actor. Making Sega was such a beautiful experience, I look forward to writing and directing more in the future.
Women constantly face barriers how are you able to navigate this terrain and still maintain your dignity?
Indeed! Especially the film industry, which is predominantly male. I was raised by dynamic and strong Somali women who always taught me to stand up for myself. It can be challenging at times to counter patriarchy but I try to be true to myself and put my best foot forward. I refuse to myself “smaller” and I try not to apologize as much. Then I respectfully show up in all my personal power I can muster. Women are incredibly strong, celestial beings. We all want to be heard. I try to remember this when I face barriers and then figure out how to break them one barrier at a time.
How did you get involved with Glamour Magazine’s The Girl Project?
I was Story Producer on a film called “A Seed of Maize” directed by my dear friend and creative collaborator Topaz Adizes. We filmed it in Zambia and the story was about a young girl named Florence and her family’s desire and economic struggle to keep her and her siblings in school. Another friend knew of my work on the film, my travels and passion for girls education and recommended me as one of the five women directors for “Get Schooled,” with Glamour Magazine and the Girl Project. Lo and behold, I was selected! I was then sent to Malawi as part of an all women filmmaking team (which was amazing) and I met Jenifer, a young powerful woman also defying all the odds in her education journey. We are still in touch today and she is a part of my global family.
What is your dream project or collaboration?
Where do I begin? There are so many inspiring people I’d love to collaborate with. For example, this Q+A is a dream collaboration! But in all seriousness, my dream collaboration would be to work with Oprah Winfrey, hands down. She is one of my teachers and an inspiring human making this world a better place. Working with her would be a dream come true.
What are your fave sites for “Gifts that Give”?
I love the holidays! It’s such a festive time. Although I don’t celebrate Xmas, per se, I do love the holiday spirit of giving. I like donating to organizations I believe in on behalf of loved ones and friends during this time of year. I love giving the gift of education and love the holiday offerings of the International Rescue Committee, a modest amount can truly impact another person’s life and send a girl to school for an entire year. Nothing more festive than that!