A look inside The Perfect Story
Perspective on Michelle Shephard and Abdulle’s unique connection through journalism
George Orwell, writing about his experiences of the Spanish Civil War, said that filth and chaos seemed to be an inevitable byproduct of civil war; it was everywhere. Power vacuums lend themselves to confusion and volatility. When a country is irreconcilably divided, when violence and terror become the only recourse, the fog of war hangs thicker.
Somalia has been in various states of civil war since the early 1990s when the Somali Democratic Republic collapsed. In 2010, the two main combatants were the Federal Government of Somalia and the jihadist group al-Shabaab. At that time, Michelle Shephard – a journalist and filmmaker based in Toronto – had been reporting on Somalia.
When al-Shabaab controlled Mogadishu – the capital city of Somalia – they used amputation as a form of corporal punishment. For example, men accused of stealing would have their right hand and left foot cut off. Ismael Khalif Abdulle, a 17-year-old Somali boy, was a victim of one of these “cross-amputations.”
Through a fellow journalist, Shephard and Abdulle met. Abdulle told Shephard that he was cross-amputated because he refused to join al-Shabaab. He wanted to stay in school and study, he said. For Shephard, Abdulle’s experience seemed like the perfect story. Abdulle was an innocent boy, maimed by jihadists, who wanted to earnestly pursue his education. Abdulle was also seeking refuge in the West.
Abdulle’s story came to the attention of the Somalian diaspora living in Canada. They organized fundraisers and other events to help Abdulle find refuge in Norway. After several years of studying in a small town called Harstad, Abdulle became a citizen of Norway.
Shephard and Abdulle kept in touch during these years. After receiving his Norwegian citizenship, Abdulle told Shephard that he was suffering a breakdown. He missed home. He missed his family. He felt alienated in Norway. Shephard helped Abdulle coordinate a brief return to Mogadishu.
Abdulle was reunited with his family after a decade of being apart, but Abdulle’s behaviour became increasingly evasive during his stay in Mogadishu. It was clear to Shephard that Abdulle was hiding something. Later, Abdulle met Shephard in Toronto to make his confession. Abdulle revealed that he hadn’t been entirely honest about the events leading up to his cross-amputation. He wasn’t the totally innocent refugee as he had led media to portray him.
Shephard’s 2021 documentary The Perfect Story recounts her and Abdulle’s decade-long professional and personal relationship. For Shephard, Abdulle was the perfect story. It was a simple narrative. He was a resilient, innocent kid who had defied a powerful terrorist group. He wanted to pursue his education. With the help of the Somali diaspora, he found refuge in Norway. Who wouldn’t love that story?
The perfect story became complicated and morally ambiguous when Abdulle confessed that he lied about the reason he had been maimed by al-Shabaab. Consequently, Shephard’s documentary invites viewers to question narratives about the responsibility of journalists and the way in which journalists portray war and refugees in their stories.
“It’s the type of film that I feel like you need to discuss afterwards,” Shephard told me in an interview. “It’s one of those stories that makes you think about the profession [of journalism] and what we do.”
The question of objectivity in journalism is dealt with in The Perfect Story. If journalists can’t be objective, then what is their responsibility as writers who can shape the public’s perception on sensitive issues? Shephard explained “We all bring our own experiences, and we all bring our own backgrounds, to whatever story we report on. […] If you recognize the lens that you’re bringing to the story, then you can do a better job at seeing how that’s shaping what you’re seeing.”
With Shephard and Abdulle, it became personal. “It felt like I was breaking the rule we always try to keep in journalism: don’t become part of the story,” Shephard said. Over the past decade, the two had developed a friendship. I asked Shepherd what she was thinking when Abdulle confessed that he had lied about his past. “This isn’t a good thing to admit, but the journalism wasn’t my first thought. It certainly came quickly as a second thought. But my first thought was really about him. I grasped pretty quickly that he had been carrying this around for ten years, and because of that initial story he told, he had to keep retelling that because the story had gotten bigger than himself.”
Nevertheless, the basic facts of the story are still true. Abdulle was a teenager who had been maimed by al-Shabaab. The reasons for why Abdulle ended up in al-Shabaab’s custody differed, however. That is where the record had to be corrected. Other journalists have accused Shephard of failing to properly question and fact-check Abdulle’s claims. But as she told me, journalists also have a responsibility to practice compassion and avoid re-traumatizing their subjects: “This was a teenager who had suffered this incredible trauma six months earlier. […] It’s important not to re-victimize victims of war.” Although she had been misled in some details about Abdulle’s story, she said, “I feel like I pushed him hard enough.”
On the other hand, consider Abdulle’s situation. He was a boy, living in a country that had been in civil war for decades, and he had just lost his hand and foot. “I understand why he did it. In a way, he was incredibly savvy and smart for a 17-year-old,” Shephard explained.
The Perfect Story masterfully deals with two intersecting issues: objectivity and ethics in journalism, and narratives about refugees fleeing to the West. In many cases, Western media shapes narratives around refugees one of two ways. As one narrative goes, refugees experience utter deprivation and flee from intolerable conditions to find safety in the West; therefore, their status as refugee is valid. Or, as the other narrative goes, refugees had relatively stable lives in their home countries, but they are seeking material gain in the West. In other words, they are characterized as economic migrants rather than refugees. Some far-right news outlets even argue that these so-called economic migrants intentionally manipulate bleeding heart liberals in the West to more easily secure refugee status. These economic migrants fabricate stories of extreme destitution or persecution in order to garner more pity and compassion from Westerners.
Obviously, both of these narratives are oversimplified and untrue. The Perfect Story complicates and problematizes both of these narratives and presents something much closer to reality: that nobody is entirely innocent nor entirely cynical. People are simply trying to survive, trying to make a better life for themselves, and they’ll do what they think is necessary in order to secure that better life.
Journalists must remember that they shape the public’s perception of these issues. They have a responsibility to present nuanced, complicated stories, because that’s closer to the truth. As Shephard said near the end of our interview, “We’re so desperate to put people into one box or the other. […] Of course there are cases on each extreme, but they are the minority.”