We take the NHS for granted. Not to turn this film review into a political rant, but if we ever let it go away, we’re soon going to find out both just how much we relied on it without really thinking and how much we’re going to miss it. Khadar Ahmed’s first feature has some very important points to make about the choices faced by people who can’t find emergency funds, who don’t have the facility to borrow them, when a medical issue is the choice between life and death and the deciding factor is money.

Guled (Omar Abdi), his wife Nasra (Yasmin Warsame) and their teenage son Mahad (Kadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim) live in Djibouti, where Guled ekes out a living as part of a crew of gravediggers. Because times are tight, Guled cannot afford the $5000 fee for an operation Nasra needs to correct a kidney condition, which will otherwise soon kill her, so he decides to return to his home village to try to reclaim and sell his part of the family flock of goats.

The Gravedigger’s WifeAhmed and his actors build the world of the film well. The camaraderie between Guled and the rest of his crew is particularly well established, capturing them waiting for work, chasing ambulances as they arrive at the hospital, and Guled being a wingman when one of the guys is too shy to talk to a woman he likes. These sequences also establish the feel of Djibouti which, at least from Guled’s vantage point, doesn’t seem to present a lot of ways to make a lot of cash fast. All this considered, it’s a moving moment when one of the crew gives Guled a little money they have got together from having a whip round, we can easily see that they are in the same situation as him, with little to spare.

The Gravedigger’s Wife

While the characters in Guled’s crew are less well established than how they relate to each other, it’s much more frustrating that the same feels true of the relationships at home. Guled clearly loves and cares about his wife, but for the first half of the film the character of his son Mahad is so underwritten that the film almost seems to forget he exists for long periods, and Nasra is essentially reduced to a device; the sick person in bed whose plight drives the plot. While the film is only 84 minutes long, it is also very slow at times and it’s into the third act before much decisive action, in the form of Guled starting to walk to the village, happens. As desperate as the situation is, and as much as it’s easy to sympathise and empathise thanks to the very realistic performances, the film never quite grips the way it should thanks to the rather plodding pace.

For me, the third act never quite comes together. Certain narrative elements don’t really ring true, and Ahmed leans heavily on irony and inevitability in a way that never really connected with me emotionally. On the whole the film has an important message, but the elements never quite knit together to deliver it as effectively as you’d hope.