Fathia Absie’s first documentary, Broken Dreams, tells the story of a group of teenage Somali-American boys who left their families in Minneapolis to fight Ethiopians invading Somalia. The Cedar Cultural Center screened the film on Friday, March 18, free of charge.
Since civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of refugees have made their way to the United States, many of them settling here in Minneapolis. They’ve studied English, earned degrees, grown families, started businesses, and earned themselves a reputation as hardworking, responsible people. Large numbers live in the Cedar-Riverside area, though others have found jobs in and moved to the suburbs.
After creating a safe, prosperous new community here, most Somali Americans were baffled when, in 2008 and 2009, some of their young men began disappearing. Twenty or more teenage boys began to distance themselves from their families, secretly found their passports, and left the country without a word to their parents. They traveled to Somalia, a country most of them had fled as babies, if they lived there at all. Their goal was to fight the Ethiopian soldiers who had been invading Somalia. Several boys were killed, a few made it back and are currently under FBI investigation, and the whereabouts of the rest remain unknown.
While the quality of her film is rough, Absie has done an excellent job of collecting first-hand material from the local Somali community. About half of the interviews are in English, and the rest are translated with English subtitles.
Absie, who emigrated from Somalia herself as a teenager, said after the screening that her home country was once the strongest country in Africa. Now it’s considered one of the worst places in the world. And the idea that these young men would leave here, a land of safety and opportunity, to go back to Somalia and kill people, perplexed her. Why would anyone make that choice? So she began researching the story, and the result is this film.
A big part of the movie, unsurprisingly, is Somali Americans discussing the misrepresentations of their culture and of Islam in the media. They express anger that their peaceful religion has been co-opted by Al-Shabab, a youth terrorist group believed to have recruited these boys. Some suggest that the group used the community’s mosque as a recruiting ground, though a leader of the mosque argues that this suspicion is unfounded. Many adults interviewed say these boys have gone to fight a war they don’t even understand.
We do not hear from any of the missing young men or learn much about them individually, though do we see a set of photographs. In a Q&A session afterward, Absie said that the boys still under investigation weren’t willing to participate. And the families of missing boys did not want to speak, for fear that doing so might cause harm to their sons.
The most touching moments in the film come from the voices of two mothers and a grandmother, whose boys all left the country unexpectedly, and who were killed before they could return to their families. One mother describes the day her son didn’t come home, as she wondered where he could be.
All in all, as intriguing and educational as Broken Dreams is, it needs tightening and clarification. For someone unfamiliar with the news coverage of these events, this story would be very hard to follow. A more thorough explanatory overview would have been helpful up front, whether from a narrator or from further news clips.
In addition, I would have liked to see speakers’ names more than once. The sheer quantity of voices in this film makes it challenging to keep track of who has said what, and while characters definitely take shape over time, being able to put a name and a community role with a face and a voice would add a lot.
Finally, some of the content was repetitive. While it is valuable to hear from a variety of speakers, key quotes on a topic from one or two people would have been more effective than very similar opinions from three or four.
With all of that said, though, this film contributes to an essential dialogue here in the Twin Cities. Somali Americans have been subjected to a great deal of criticism for the acts of a few teenagers, and many of us don’t really know the true story. The theater wasn’t full on Friday night, but the majority of the audience stayed for more than half an hour to ask questions. This documentary won’t answer all of your questions, but it offers a fascinating look into a tight-knit local community that is here to stay.
Absie expects the DVD will be released in July. Until then, you can watch a trailer and learn more about the project at www.brokendreamsdocumentary.com.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.