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Mo Farah is one of the U.K.’s greatest athletes, having won 10 gold medals — four at the Olympics and six at the World Championships — in long-distance running. He has been knighted by the Queen and won countless awards, including BBC Sports’ Personality of the Year.
But now, the sporting superstar has rocked the country once again with a new documentary, “The Real Mo Farah,” which airs Wednesday (July 13) on BBC One.
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In the documentary, he reveals his real name is not, in fact, Mohamed Farah, but rather Hussein Abdi Kahin. As a 9-year-old, he was trafficked to the U.K. from Somaliland via a false passport and forced to work in domestic servitude for the Somali strangers who brought him there.
By the time Farah finally escaped (after confiding in his physical ed. teacher, who informed social services) it didn’t occur to anyone to call him by his birth name. As he details in the documentary, when he eventually applied for British citizenship — so he could represent the U.K. abroad in long-distance running — the application was made in the name of Mo Farah, since he didn’t have any documents with his real name. It is a secret Farah (he has confirmed he will continue using the name) has kept for 30 years — one he knew could potentially result in him having his citizenship revoked if he ever revealed it publicly.
Emma Loach is the BBC’s factual commissioner who, unsurprisingly, greenlit the doc almost immediately after it was brought to her by production company Atomized Studios. They told her the “bare bones” of the story after she agreed to sign an NDA. Loach’s first reaction to hearing the revelation was, “Crikey, I can’t tell anybody,” she tells Variety. “And I’m normally not very good at keeping secrets.”
Once Loach was satisfied that Farah was ready to share his story with the world and was aware of the potential legal repercussions — “[the Atomized team] spent a lot of time talking to him to make sure he was ready to tell his story,” she says — she reached out to Red Bull Studios as a co-production partner.
When Bernadette McDaid, Red Bull Studios’ global head, heard the pitch, she said it was “such a no-brainer.” “I think Emma and I spoke on a Monday morning, and we had greenlit it by the next day,” McDaid reveals. “The Real Mo Farah” is Red Bull Studios’ first feature film (they will also be distributing it globally) and McDaid says it has everything the studio was looking for in its inaugural project.
“This is an investigative piece at its heart,” she says. “But what appealed to Red Bull Studios is that the story is told in a way that has a universal timelessness and relevance. It’s a very human, relatable story. And it’s things that we all understand that transcend boundaries. It’s about the compulsion to tell the truth and need to be seen for who you are. The courage under adversity, and the raw vulnerability of Mo Farah on screen — I mean, it’s just breathtaking.”
The documentary took approximately 18 months from pitch to delivery, with the team still filming and editing just weeks ago.
“Duty of care” is a term Loach mentions repeatedly, and she was keen to ensure Farah had time to process what he discovered while making the documentary, which involved not only tracking down the woman he believes trafficked him (ultimately she declined to take part) but also travelling to Somaliland to interview his mother and brothers. “Sending Mo through this journey, in a very time-pressured way, just felt like a completely wrong thing to do,” Loach explains of the approach they took. “It was a really massive thing for him to find out about himself. So we knew we wanted time.”
Equally, the team felt they had a duty of care to some of the other participants — including the real Mo Farah, whose identity was stolen, with whom Farah eventually makes contact by video call. But throughout the making of the doc, the producers were nervous some of the key characters might pull out, even after filming.
“For the longest time, and [through] all the cuts, we were looking at the sequences, the scenes, individually,” says McDaid. “Because at any given time, someone saying yes or no [to appearing in it] will completely change how we told the story. And that was why literally we were cutting up until a week ago, two weeks ago.”
The potential legal ramifications of Farah revealing his story were also forefront in both Loach and McDaid’s minds. The BBC took legal advice before proceeding with the documentary and also asked Farah to take independent legal advice, a snapshot of which is seen in the film when Farah and his wife visit lawyers, who warn the couple there is a risk that Farah’s British citizenship could be revoked since it was obtained fraudulently.
“None of us knew how the Home Office was going to react,” McDaid says. Fortunately, once the news broke about Farah’s real identity on Monday, the British government confirmed it would not be taking any action against him. Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police have also revealed they are investigating the trafficking claims with a view to taking action against the alleged perpetrators.
When asked whether she’s heard from Farah in the last few days, Loach says “the [Atomized] team have been in constant touch” and he’s “very relieved” that the response has been so positive.
“Once it’s released into the world, you don’t have any control over how that story goes,” Loach says. “And so we have been preparing for the worst, in some ways. But we’re so absolutely delighted and thrilled to see the reaction it’s getting because it’s absolutely the correct reaction.”
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