Mwajemi Hussein had never been in a cinema or acted before her leading role in “The Survival of Kindness”.
A film that stands a chance of winning the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Hussein, in her early 50s, plays BlackWoman in the dystopian racial allegory by director Rolf de Heer, that opens with her walking across a hot desert barefoot, having escaped from a cage where she had been left for dead by white men who wore gas masks.
The actor and case worker from the Democratic Republic of Congo draws on her unique personal experience growing up to transform the largely non-speaking role into a study of resilience, persistence, despair and kindness.
“I lived surviving everyday every day because my family was poor. It was not easy to find even food, shoes. People are not sure how I made it walking barefoot, but it was part of my life because I grew up without shoes,” Hussein told Reuters in an interview.
“I grew up without my parent, my biological parent, so I had to learn how to communicate with people around the villages to try and survive”, she said.
Hussein fled Congo in 1996 after war broke out, living in a refugee camp in Tanzania for eight years before migrating with her husband and six children to Australia on a refugee visa in 2005.
She auditioned for the role despite having no acting experience, after being encouraged by members of her community.
Hussein, who said she was nervous at first about performing, now advocates for and encourages others, especially those who are marginalized.
“We should (be kind) if we see something valuable in someone. Because sometimes people don’t know themselves, but another person can see something in you,” she said.
“So if you see something in someone, encourage it. That’s how we can make our world better”.
The decision to cast Hussein as BlackWoman over someone with more experience was somewhat of a risk, de Heer told Reuters. “With Mwajemi, it could perhaps be bad, but it could be great”, he said.
“There’s no pool of actors in South Australia that includes choices about, you know, black women of that age. They just aren’t there because the parts aren’t there for them.”