Lula Ali Ismail is a Canadian-based filmmaker originally from Djibouti. Twenty-four
years ago she left her country and settled in the serene surroundings of Montreal
but this comfortable environment did not deter her from keeping in touch with her
Djibouti has a population of less than 1 million inhabitants; it was under French
occupation until 1977 and has French, Arabic, Afar and Somali as its main
languages. It’s a 99 percent Islamic nation with Roman Catholic and other Christian
faiths representing the rest of the country’s religious culture.
The country is ranked among the poorest in the world; its neighbours are Eritrea,
Ethiopia and Somalia. Instability in the country led to a lot of emigration in the
1970s and early “80s.
For Ismail this was a blessing in disguise.
“It’s not easy to embrace a foreign culture and forget your own,’ she says. “When I
left for Montreal I was naive, young and didn’t know much about the rest of the
world but being here has shaped my thinking into appreciating where I come from
and my people and customs as an immigrant.’
The youngest of eight children, Lula studied office automation but her mind and
passion was in film and theatre and she later took courses in these pursuits.
She has been involved as an actress with a number of television series in Quebec
but over the years she was continually drawn to directing.
“I always felt like it’s easier for me to express myself well and be the creator of
stories rather than the expression of someone else’s creativity,’ she says. “If you
grow up knowing what you are, what you can do, then over time that feeling starts
taking its toll on you and you want to do what suits you, what makes you tick, with
or without approval. That passion drove me into being the creator.’
Four years ago the 38-year-old did a movie called Laan, a short film about the
everyday life of three young girls who chew khat and are in search of soul mates.
The theme was atypical of life in Djibouti.
“We shot it on a DSLR after I traveled to my country to raise funds and I was
overwhelmed at the positive response I got from my family, friends and the public
when I was raising these funds.’
The limited resources found in Djibouti were a challenging factor.
“There was no-one in the government to help, but then the ministry of culture tried
the best it could, even though the country then was not really in a good shape to
assist. The Djiboutian people helped and that’s really amazing. I can’t thank them
Her film received positive reviews from different festivals across France, Canada
and America and was a success beyond her expectations.
“When we showed this movie at Lausanne, we never expected people to respond
the way they did, we won awards and this meant so much to us.’
In October 2014, Lula began shooting her first feature-length film, Dhalinyaro
(Youth), about three 18-year-old girls from contrasting social classes in search of
meaning while at high school.
“I want to tell a story that offers the audience a different understanding on life in
wild Africa.’ She adds: “These three girls come from different socioeconomic
backgrounds and they all have dreams and hopes and all want to have success in
their lives. That, I think, is critical in relation to the audience in Djibouti and the
The film was financed by an association named Organisation Internationale de la
Francophone (OIF). French and Canadian funders offered 800 000 Euros and
Senegalese and Djiboutis gave 160 000 Euros for the film.
The film was shot over seven weeks, on 35mm, with the entire production
completed in Djibouti.
The French independent producer Gilles Sandoz thinks it is a great opportunity for
Djibouti to have a female filmmaker to represent the country in cinema in a
feature-length film project.
“This is absolutely amazing to be part of this and work with Lula in her first feature
film,’ she says. “I am thrilled that her resolve has finally paid off, and I wish this
film to be a success for her and the country as a whole.’
By Sam Charo