The film is beautiful in so many different ways, and it is quite challenging to contain my enthusiasm for it. It opens with children’s voices cascading from a school playground. Three girls in their late teens are talking with each other in the courtyard of a high school and three boys are behind them having a separate conversation among themselves. The conversations between the students are in a mix of mainly Somali and French, and the multilingual youngsters switch from one language to another with consummate ease. This is the opening scene from Dhalinyaro, the first full length feature film from Djibouti.
Dhalinyaro, meaning youth in Somali, was also released under its French name Jeunesse. Although released in 2017, the film emerged into the spotlight in 2020 after it won several awards at international film festivals – including Festival International des Films de la Diaspora Africaine 2019, Afrika Film Festival – Cologne 2019, Urusaro International Women Film Festival – Rwanda 2019, and Arabisches Film Festival – Tubingen 2019. In April 2020, it was screened for free on a digital platform promoting African cinema and when people heard about it via Twitter, it proved to be so popular it received nearly thirty times more views than all the other film screenings combined. It continued to be screened free for a while, which meant it reached audiences who may not have otherwise been able to access it.
The film is the brain child of Lula Ali Ismail, a Djibouti-Canadian filmmaker, actor and director, who co-wrote and directed Dhalinyaro. Djibouti does not have a film industry, so Ismail is a pioneer who has earned the nickname ‘the first lady of Djibouti cinema’. Half of the budget for the film was fundraised in one and half years from the Djiboutian government and prominent businesses. Ismail was overwhelmed with the level of support she received for the production. She impressed that she wanted to make a film that was not focussed on people who were undergoing hardship, such as migrating refugees, or victims of conflict. She wanted to show African people living their day to day lives. Her aim was to allow for this space to create with freedom. She didn’t want to replicate fetishised stories of Africa that depict problems and pain all of the time. Ismail set out to create a story that speaks to young people across the world, and her premise is one that anyone who has navigated friendships, parent-child relationships and intimacy, can identify with.
Dhalinyaro is a coming-of-age story that follows the lives of three high school students, Deka, Asma and Hibo, during the year of their baccalaureate, which is equivalent to A-levels in the UK. This is a time of transition when these girls become young women, and the film is consciously centred within the context of contemporary Djibouti, honouring the cultures, and most importantly the voices of its youth. Indeed, Djibouti city itself is the fourth main character in the film – its harbour, its cityscape, and the day to day lives of its citizens. Djibouti, a former French colony on the Horn of Africa, was previously known as French Somaliland and then as French Territory of the Afars and Issas before the country won its sovereignty from France as recently as 1977. That was when it officially became the Republic of Djibouti. French is very widely spoken and interspersed within conversations in the Somali and Afar languages.