FROM WAR-TORN KUWAIT TO HIS NATIVE SUDAN TO CANADA, FILMMAKER AND MUSICIAN FATEH AHMED SHARES HIS STORY
Few Haligonians have had journeys like documentary filmmaker and musician Fateh Ahmed. It began in 1977 in Antwerp, Belgium, where he was born to Omaima Hassan Karrar and Awad Ahmed El Mekki. Ahmed only lived there for five years, while his father was attending university, but they were formative years. “That’s when I was exposed to reggae and to Bob Marley’s music,” he says. “When you’re that young, everything gets absorbed quite easily, and disseminates through all of your experiences later.”
Once Ahmed’s father finished his degree, he got a contract in the biology department at the University of Kuwait, but it took a while to sort out the details. So while they waited, they moved back to his parents’ homeland of Sudan. There, Ahmed spent time with his maternal grandmother, Nafisa Kamil, Sudan’s first female journalist and the founder of a number of orphanages. She often took Ahmed along on her visits. “During those early years, that helped me to see how life could be very fragile,” says Ahmed. “As well, it was learning how to share, to give, and to celebrate as a nation.”
The family left Sudan for Kuwait after about a year and a half, where they settled into a home near the Shuwaikh port. The first few years were peaceful and stable, and two more children were born. Ahmed spent a lot of time with his father, a medical virologist and violinist with a keen interest in art, history, science, and technology. Kuwait had a major impact on Ahmed’s education. It’s where he learned English and developed his core skills as a pianist.
He pauses in his story here: “This was the foundation for everything that came after.”
“After” began in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War began. Sometimes there was no power, sometimes no water. The oil fields burned; even during the day, the air was black. Ahmed was 12.
“Obviously you would see tanks and soldiers through the entire country,” he recalls. “Planes. Sometimes you would hear an explosion. But you come to learn, living through a war that not every day is a war day. A lot of the days just felt normal. But then there were days when you truly couldn’t leave your home.”
Until the war ended in February of the following year, Ahmed’s father took over the kids’ education, and a piano-less Ahmed maintained his skills by playing notes in the air. Then they moved to Saudi Arabia. But their minds and hearts were still in Sudan where the National Islamic Front (NIF) government had executed 28 army officers after accusing them of a failed coup, burying them in a mass grave.
“I get my humanitarian side from both of my parents, but especially from my mother,” Ahmed says. “Early on, she took care of the family, and she taught us a lot, and I’m still very close to her. Later on, as we grew up, that’s when she continued doing her work in philanthropy. She helped establish hospitals in the South of Sudan for those who were injured and to support some of the unprivileged in the north part of the country.”
Ahmed’s aunt Samira Karrar started a humanitarian group that demonstrated against the Sudanese government, and fought for the rights of the executed army officers’ families. Ahmed, who was in high school, vented his political frustration by making music.
In 2003, he came to Halifax after hearing good things from his brother about the quality of education offered. His brother was studying computer animation; Ahmed enrolled at NSCC, where he earned a degree in recording arts. During that time, he also performed at festivals with bands like Afro-Musica and Merimac. Later, he earned a degree in digital filmmaking from the Centre for Arts and Technology (now daVinci College, where his brother studied and he now works as an instructor). His work as a documentary filmmaker reflects those early experiences.
Currently, he’s working on a documentary about The Wailers, the legendary reggae band that Bob Marley once led. In particular, he’s focusing on bassist and original band member Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Ahmed met Aston Barrett Jr. when The Wailers Band performed at the Halifax Jazz Festival in 2013, after Barrett noticed Ahmed near the backstage area and invited him to meet his father. “We’ve been friends ever since,” says Barrett. “My father loves him a lot, he thinks he’s really great.”
After getting to know the family, Ahmed shared an idea: “Fateh came to me one day and said, ‘You know, it’s really time you should start a documentary because your father is of a certain age, and he has so much history to talk about, but he doesn’t really share the history with a lot of people. But there are so many people in the world that want to know.”
Barrett Jr. agreed.“There’s always something new that I’ve never heard before,” he says. “When you’re telling the story, you have to try and put everything together. There are always bits of things that filter out.”
Barrett Jr. is also thrilled that Ahmed’s focusing on his father. “Even the Marley family, they adore my father,” he says. “They call him Uncle. Bob Marley always said, ‘If there’s something wrong with the music, call Family Man. He’ll fix it.’ Fateh’s such a big fan of my family, Uncle Carly and my father. It’s really great.”
Ahmed’s earlier documentaries include Pushed Out, about the impact of gentrification in North End Halifax, and Without Consultation, about the 2015 film tax credit changes in Nova Scotia. He produced both through his film company, Core Film Productions.
For Colin Hampsey, an associate producer on Pushed Out, one particular story comes to mind when he reflects on his work with Ahmed. “We went to the North End one day, and we talked to… I think he was a homeless person, living on the streets there,” says Hampsey. “It was a really powerful interview.
As soon as they’d wrapped up, Hampsey says a police officer arrived. “We kept the cameras rolling, we stayed there with him, we wanted to make sure that everyone knew this guy was just giving us an honest interview, he wasn’t just sticking around on the streets to be a nuisance or anything like that,” says Hampsey. “A lot of people, especially with a camera in their hand, will run away… But Fateh’s concern at the time wasn’t his documentary, it was this guy. And I think that speaks volumes about how he is as a professional.”
Ahmed also made an impression on actor and former MLA Lenore Zann when he asked her for an interview during the film-tax-credit protest in April 2015.
“Fateh is a brave soul,” she says. “He’s passionate about his music, about film, about artists, about reaching across the void to hold hands with people who might be different from you, but really we’re all the same. I love the fact that he’s not afraid to speak out at a time when other filmmakers were nervous and not really up for speaking out loudly against what the government was doing. To be fair, they were afraid that their film project would not get greenlighted.”
Ahmed also performs as one of the founding members of Halifax reggae band Kore. That’s when he started playing with Lil Thomas, head of the audio-engineering department at daVinci College.
“We both had an interest in the same type of music, found a common thread and started playing music together and enjoyed it,” says Thomas. “Fateh had started playing music with a couple of other friends and invited me into the fold.”
Thomas only plays with Kore occasionally, but he’s spent enough time with Ahmed to know what he’s capable of. “He’s an excellent musician, very well-rounded in terms of diversity of styles,” says Thomas. “He can sit down at a piano and whip off beautiful classical music and then turn around and play reggae music or pop R&B type-stuff. Very good instinctive musical feel and really fun to jam with as well.”
When asked what Halifax means to him now, Ahmed doesn’t hesitate: “It means home. I honestly couldn’t think of any expression better than that. It’s a home where you meet your family, it’s a home where you support one another and it’s a home where you learn and exchange cultural diversity with love.”
Fittingly, he attributes his success in this new home to his family. He speaks about his father, who passed away just a couple of months ago. “He excelled in almost everything he touched,” says Ahmed. “He was indeed an exceptional human being and I came to learn so much because of him. So, he was my mentor, perhaps the best and the greatest one I ever had in my entire life.”