Abderrahmane Sissako (b. 1961) is one of the most feted African directors of his generation. His has been a life of movement between Mauritania, Mali and France with a period at film school in Moscow in the 1980s. Making films in many parts of Africa is difficult and Sissako’s output has been limited to just three features, a number of shorter films and two contributions to international ‘compendium’ films. The films may be few in number but they have won many prizes and in the case of Timbuktu have attracted significant audiences in France and North America . . . but they are difficult to see in cinemas in Africa.
Here are some of Sissako’s ideas about his films in his own words taken from interviews promoting Timbuktu:
I came to cinema accidentally, not out of passion and the desire to watch films. But when I went to formally study cinema, I was overwhelmed. And I’m still overwhelmed by it.
It’s true that [Timbuktu] doesn’t have a classic, linear narration. If you look at the different stories, there are different blocks, you can move them around, put them in different places. And for me, that’s what cinema is. In an hour and a half, you create a kind of harmony of communication. But I really enjoy the editing process. There are a lot of things that are involved in creation that I feel at that moment, in that editing moment. And film itself is a very fragile thing.
For me, the framing of the shot is an invitation. What I’m doing in the frame is inviting the viewer to enter into it. So I don’t impose the scene on them by saying: “Here, look at this. You’re gonna look at this.”
I think people are the same no matter where they are. And the problem is that they’re not portrayed as being the same. Yes, it’s true that every culture is going to have their own set of issues, but it’s the way in which they’re shown that makes it seem like they’re different. Africans are very often portrayed in a way that makes their issues seem mysterious, when in fact they’re really in many ways no different from Europeans. With Timbuktu, in the relationship between the couple, Kidane and Satima, when they’re talking about family issues, it’s really a conversation that could take place here as well. The father/daughter relationship is the same.
(Film Comment interview by Violet Lucca 23/1/2015)
What I wanted [with Timbuktu] was to show the impact – what it means – when a city is taken hostage. I think, in the West, people only feel a connection when there’s something they can relate to: the taking of a single hostage, for instance. It will draw their attention more than a whole population being taken hostage – that’s not something that enters into their consciousness the same way.
. . . after all [the jihadists] are human beings. At some point in their lives, they were ‘normal people’; one day, they changed. And each person, most likely for different reasons. The young rapper, in the video scene, who’s come from Paris – obviously he must have crossed over to the jihadist side for his own personal reasons . . . . I think it’s necessary to see things in that way, if we want to go beyond. Otherwise, we get this idea that, when we kill the bad guys, the problem disappears – and it’s not like that. It’s the role of the artist: the artist must give humanity to the people he or she is showing. If he doesn’t make them human, he begins to lose some of his own humanity.
. . . comparisons [with other films] don’t bother me too much. I think it’s good, too, when people from outside appropriate the film for themselves in that way, it encourages comments and discussion. Sometimes people need markers, reference points, that they can relate to. It’s more for them than it is for me.
. . . the writing of a film must always be open. An actor doesn’t learn his or her role; they live it. Once I see that the subject interests them, there’s something inside of them, I know they’re going to contribute something to the film, via the character.
(The L Magazine, interview by Steve Macfarlane, 28/1/2015)
The writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako is one of the case study subjects in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book. He makes beautifully-constructed films – but only three in 12 years starting with Waiting For Happiness in 2002, followed by Bamako in 2006 and this latest film in competition at Cannes 2014. He has also been involved as a producer/executive producer on two films from the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun – Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006). Sissako and Haroun are the only current African directors to consistently produce films that feature at international festivals and are sold to the UK and US and other international territories. Other Francophone directors are often limited to a release in France. In Francophone Africa films are rarely seen by local audiences except via FESPACO, the biennial African film festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Both Sissako and Haroun produce films using French production support since the infrastructure for filmmaking in Mauritania and Chad is limited.
‘Timbuktu’ for audiences in Europe has historically been the signifier of ‘the most distant’ and ‘the most exotic’. More recently it has been the destination of music tourists heading for a festival of desert blues. In 2012 the Malian city was occupied by Tuareg rebels including jihadists who sought to impose Sharia law on the inhabitants of the city. Sissako’s film begins with local wooden carvings being used for target practice by jihadists and later it shows attempts to prevent local people playing music. Most of the film was actually shot in Mauritania but there are enough shots of the unique conical or pyramid-shaped structures used as mosques in Timbuktu to confirm the intended location.
Timbuktu has a distinctive narrative structure that mainly pits the story of what happens to a single Tuareg family living in the desert outside the city against the attempts by the jihadists to ‘police’ the activities of the inhabitants of one part of the city. The narration roams across different mini-stories before returning to the Tuareg family. Each of the separate stories focuses on one aspect of Sharia law – the ban on music, the need for women to cover themselves, the rules of marriage, the judicial procedures that produce severe sentences. The most shocking of these, the stoning to death of an unmarried couple, was a real event which formed the starting point for Sissako’s script (co-written by a young woman, Kessen Tall).
Despite the lack of ‘narrative drive’ as found in commercial cinema, Timbuktu is endlessly fascinating, shocking, emotionally moving and sometimes very funny. The narrative is richly textured and multi-layered and almost seems to define the concept of ‘global filmmaking’. The characters are carefully delineated in terms of ethnicity and personal background. Mali is a country with a dozen official languages although the two most used in official communications are Bambara and French. The jihadists use both of these to warn citizens of the new rules. Yet the jihadists themselves, many from Libya or with experience of training and fighting in that country, speak Arabic, French and English. However many can only speak one of these languages and others must interpret for them, sometimes in quite cumbersome ways. There are even language and ethnicity issues within the Tuareg communities (something I didn’t realise until research after the screening).
Apart from shock of the sickening violence of the stoning, the most controversial aspect of the film for some commentators is the way that Sissako ‘humanises’ some of the jihadists. They are a mixed group of the well-educated and urbane and the much less sophisticated. Their belief in a cause/mission is firmly held but they are chided by the local imam for their lack of knowledge about Islam and they enjoy in private what they forbid in public. For me one of the most compelling sequences occurs at a judicial hearing. The Tuareg ‘defendant’ doesn’t speak Arabic and his answers to questions have to be interpreted. The jihadist leader who acts as the Sharia law ‘magistrate’ listens carefully and writes everything down. He seems genuinely to care about what the defendant says and makes a reasoned judgment. When the defendant realises that he can’t pay the appropriate fine/compensation he accepts his fate because he believes in this Islamic procedure. This scene contrasts sharply with others where Sharia is forced on people for various ‘crimes’, e.g. the family of the young woman who is forced into marriage with a jihadist. Sissako stages both scenes with the same measured and seemingly detached eye – we are the ones who decide for ourselves what to think. This detachment is visualised in a spectacular sequence in which cinematographer Sofian El Fani pulls away from the action and allows it to play out in the widest long shot I’ve ever seen. On a CinemaScope screen this is breathtaking.
Parts of the film reminded me very much of Bamako, with its concerns for judicial procedures while ‘ordinary life’ carries on. Sissako’s detachment also allows him to present a surreal football match in which young men play a game without a ball (playing football has been banned). I read one review that criticised the scene in which young jihadists discuss (in French) who is the best footballer in the Champions League, suggesting that this was unrealistic. I have two objections to this. First it doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’. It can be ‘fantastic’ and still tell us something about the situation and the political discourse. Secondly, the footballers who play in the Champion’s League and the major national leagues in Europe are some of the best known celebrities across Africa. My view overall is that this is too complex a narrative to discuss in detail after a single viewing. I aim to watch it again – perhaps more than once. I have read comments by people who haven’t seen the film and think it would be too harrowing or depressing. I implore you to ignore them and get to see Timbuktu if you get the opportunity. This is a great film.
Press Kit from Le Pacte
More footage and a wonderful song by Fatoumata Diawara & Amine Bouhafa:
We received this piece from Andrea Swift at the New York Film Academy. It describes a film that may be of interest to our readers, so we decided to post it:
Director Richard Wolf has produced more than 30 documentary films in his career, many for international television networks (CNN, BBC, etc.). Much of his work focuses on the plight of women in third world countries.
As he puts it the, “humanistic values that are deeply reflected in our films… are simple yet gripping because they tap into universal emotions.” In short, Wolf’s vision touches the heart. But his 2008 film,Women of the Sand, enthralls the eyes, the mind and the soul as well – at least according to the selection committee for Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Last year, the film became one of the select few to enter the museum’s permanent selection – and for good reason.
Women of the Sand focuses on the women at the heart of communities of Islamic nomads in the Sahara Desert, specifically in Mauritania. An unmitigated, cinéma vérité experience of the women’s daily routines, carries filmgoers into the meager existence of this millennia-old culture and engages us in their struggle against growing desertification. The visuals are stunning – a sculptural contemplation of wind blowing across shape-shifting dunes that rise and drop. The occasional trees and bushes are as sparse as the humans who stand improbably against this arid climate. Those same winds also catch the thin fabrics of tents and lean-tos, and of the traditional fabrics worn by the men, women and children of these unsettled communities. Heads peaking out from inside their moulafas, the women tell their stories of survival in this harsh climate, of the challenges they navigate just to feed, cloth and educate their children. They also speak of the green plants that come forth in the rainy season – the basis of all that makes life worth living. Their focus is not on the dryness and the more frequent times when food is less plentiful, though to outsiders those stark climatic conditions make it impossible not to contemplate the fragility of life. These “women of the sand” are resilient people who speak of the friendliness of the desert and desert people. One woman says she prefers that to the coolness she observes between people in the cities she, evidently, has visited.
We also learn that the desert expands by about six miles per year, challenging their beloved and centuries old nomadic ways. Over a lifetime, that means 360 more miles of largely barren sand will overtake arable land, making those green plants a sparser and sparser presence in their world. It is a losing battle against scarcity that drives more interaction with non-nomads, disrupting their way of life. Long term, it threatens to seriously diminish, perhaps even end the nomad culture.
While MOMA selects films for its collection for a broad range of reasons, the unifying criteria, according to the institution’s website, is innovation. That innovation may come into play in the film’s structure, narration or in its success immersing the viewer in the subject. One particularly striking example ofWomen of the Sand’s immersive quality gives us real insight into the nomad’s experience of modernity: In a tent on a rug that are all that separates them from endless, depthless sand, flies walk on the women’s hands and wrists, as they type on the keyboard of a laptop computer with the same skill they later demonstrate creating traditional fabric on a loom. Technology may or may not be useful to them. One mother explains they do not consider it particularly impressive or important. But will their children – who attend school in a tent, seated on the ground, feel the same way? Through a string of such moments,Women of the Sand creates a compelling tension between its exploration of a vanishing way of life, and a simultaneously contemplation its abiding continuity.
Produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa, directed by Richard Wolf, Women of the Sand is available on DVD (see below). Wolf studied film direction at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Part of his signature style is to blend very candid, personal one-on-one testimonies with monstrously out-proportioned imagery that is said to provide a global context to a very intimate story. The production company is Lobo Docs.
Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the ‘In the Life’ documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her ‘nuclear folktale’ Deafsmith was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.
A free low resolution streamed presentation of Women of the Sand is available on SnagFilms (with some forced ad breaks). The film can be purchased from the same website on this page or downloaded/rented on this page. The DVD appears to be Region 0 and the film was made in 2003.