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Yasmin Warsame had to discover ways to convey her character’s feelings in The Gravedigger's with her whole body.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Yasmin Warsame still knows how to find the perfect light in every photo, despite having been out of the haute couture scene for several years. Moments before sitting down for an interview in her publicist’s office, she’s posing for a photo. Her lithe frame is perched atop a bare table, dressed in a chic black and white ensemble by Montreal designers Atelier UNTTLD. Without direction, she angles her face – pose, pose, pose – matching the camera’s shutter speed, smouldering into the lens.

“When I see the camera, it’s just automatic,” she says, laughing, her voice a velvety bass. She had to unlearn years spent as a jet-setting high fashion model for her debut role in The Gravedigger’s Wife, Somali-Finnish director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s debut feature film, which plays as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Gravedigger’s Wife is an endearing love story set in Africa’s Djibouti City. Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger who adores his wife Nasra (Warsame). She is dying of kidney failure and needs a transplant, which his measly earnings can’t pay for. Guled offers to go back to his village to procure the money, but Nasra refuses. She’d rather spend whatever time she has with her husband and young son, Mahad. However, her worsening health propels Guled and Mahad to take action in their own ways.

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Warsame had to discover ways to convey her character’s feelings with her whole body, following the emotions of the dialogue. A three-day acting workshop in Helsinki with her co-star Abdi and director Ahmed helped, but there were many moments of uncertainty while filming. Much of the cast consisted of untrained actors like her, so they relied on each other, talking through scenes among themselves and with the director.

Acting required a departure of sorts for Warsame. As a model, you cannot make an ugly face in front of the camera, she says.

“You’ve got to look pretty, that’s the entire thing,” she adds. “[Acting] is literally the opposite of what you do as a model.”

One particular scene, where Nasra is writhing in pain, was particularly intense, Warsame says.

“I was shaking. I had to sit down and put a blanket on myself because something took over me,” she says. “I let go so much that I was a little scared. I was like – what just happened? What took over? What the hell was that?

“I mean, I’m sure if I talk to some actors … they’ll tell me what’s the name for that emotion. That was scary, and also incredibly powerful.”

At the same time, it wasn’t too difficult to get into the role. Warsame is intimately familiar with women like Nasra.

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“[Nasra] is the lady living next to my mom’s house. She’s my aunt. She’s my mother. She’s the stories I heard about needing money,” Warsame says. “Every Somali would know what that is, sending money back home. … That desperate position to be in. But also the way [Guled] is. His integrity, his love for his wife. That’s something not often seen in movies, or even stories about Somali people. That depth of thoughtfulness, and kindness, and compassion. And collectively looking out for each other. So if a neighbour is sick, the entire block comes together and takes over to look after the kids or cook food.”

Warsame never sought to be an actress. In her mid-40s now, she’d grown out of an industry that prizes youth, and had been focused on raising her two children, ages 22 and 5. Although she hadn’t checked her Instagram account in a year, she happened to one day and received a message from Ahmed, the film’s director.

“It’s like it was meant to be,” she says. Ahmed asked for an e-mail address to send her a script. “I read it and I cried. I called him and we talked for two, three hours. It was just like something beyond us was in the process.”

Warsame knew it was a small, independent film, with next to no budget. However, the fact that it was going to be shot in Somalia in her mother tongue also compelled her. The last time she visited the country was in 2012, when her mother died. Her mother hadn’t been proud of her modelling career because of her Muslim background, explains Warsame.

“[Modelling] goes literally against everything a lady should be, starting with the fact that you can’t show any parts of your body. … So I’d made a deal with my mom -- no nudity, and I would try to show the clothes rather than my body in photos,” she says.

“So really, my mom was heavily on my mind through this entire process,” Warsame continues, her eyes tearing up, and her voice catching. She takes a moment to compose herself, but can’t stop the tears from welling in her eyes, grabbing a tissue to wipe them away.

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“[This film] really holds a special place because she would have really enjoyed watching a movie for the first time without having to ask someone to translate it for her. She would be able to understand it, and just sit back and watch it. That’s so important because she’s never watched something like this, you know. But now a lot of women like her can watch it. And so I’m very proud to be a part of this story.”

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