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Meet the Filmmaker Who Won a Ten-Minute Standing Ovation at Cannes

We talked to Abderrahmane Sissako about his new film, Timbuktu, a much-lauded humanist drama set against the Sharia occupation of Northern Mali in 2012.

by Laya Maheshwari
07 January 2015, 5:05pm

Sissako pics: Moscow Film Festival

On the 31st of July, 2012, an unmarried couple were stoned to death in the centre of Aguelhok, a town in northern Mali, West Africa. More than 300 people watched as a man and woman were placed in holes four feet deep at around 5AM. Their protruding heads were pelted with stones. Both died within 15 minutes.

The perpetrators were Islamic fundamentalists who had taken over most of northern Mali, an area bigger than France. The oppressors, with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, wanted to impose a totalitarian form of Sharia law upon the region. Music was banned. Women were forced to cover up their entire bodies. Playing football was forbidden.

Abderrahmane Sissako – a Mauritania-born, Mali-and Moscow-educated, Paris-residing filmmaker – found out about this incident from a small article in a French newspaper. Disgusted, he decided to make a film. Timbuktu premiered in competition at Cannes last May, where it reportedly received a ten-minute standing ovation and uniformly effusive reviews. Mauritania has submitted the film for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, making this the first time the country has been represented in the category.

Regardless of its award season prospects, Timbuktu is a gem: a moving portrait of tough lives lived in even tougher conditions under occupation, and one that cements Sissako as a titan of humanist cinema. We asked Sissako about his filmmaking methods and the cultural implications of Timbuktu.

VICE: What did you want to achieve in making a film that responds to a real-life tragedy?
Abderrahmane Sissako: With all my films, I don't want to provoke any activities. Each person makes a film the way he wants, but there should not necessarily be a goal to it. Timbuktu is not a political campaign to convince someone of something. It was not made to force people to do something.

One of the film's most memorable scenes depicts a few boys in the village playing soccer despite not having an actual ball. What gave you the idea for that?
The film talks about forbidden things. During the events shown in the film, an Islamic state had come to power in the region, so life became much stricter. I wanted to tackle this, but not through a simple narrative. I wanted to depict the innate existence of some things, like music. You can "forbid" it, but you can't forbid someone singing in their mind. Soccer, or play, is the same. That scene shows human power and the capability of staying optimistic. A fight is not just about arms. It's also about spirit and believing in oneself with patience.

Still from Timbuktu

If you had made Timbuktu as a documentary, what would the result have resembled?
It would have been very different, more classical. Maybe it would have even been less interesting. The problem is that you can't make a documentary in a place like Timbuktu. The people are not free to talk or express themselves.

For me, the issue was not even about the consequences of making a documentary. I just preferred fiction. With Timbuktu's production, we were working with certain facts, like the stoning of the couple. These were real incidents – they happened – but I didn't just want to "depict" them. I wanted to make a story out of them. I wanted the liberty to express myself or make some changes. Fiction allowed me those liberties.


Still from Timbuktu

You spent your childhood in Mali, and Timbuktu is also set there. How do you plan for this film to reach people in the region?
In Mali, cinema is not well developed. There are few halls for screenings and people don't have opportunities to see films. However, whenever I make a film, I make sure I show it there. I make it an open-air screening, so that as many people as possible see the film.

Timbuktu will be shown in Mali and will be released there. We want to make a symbolic plan of screening it in the place where the events on screen unfolded.

What is it like to work without a script? How exactly are your films improvised on set?
I wouldn't say that one can or should make a film without a script entirely. Making a film without a script puts you in an uncomfortable situation with lots of pressure. As a rule, I don't completely adhere to scripts. Cinema is about relations with the people near you and when you take part in conversations, you are able to find out what is going on around you.

You frequently collaborate with non-professional actors. What special measures do you have to take while working with them?
I treat each person as an exceptional personality. Before shooting, I talk to my actors about the film. I visit them as a guest or have tea with them. You must develop trust – not necessarily friendship, but trust is essential. This is like any couple in a relationship. If there is trust, the relationship flourishes. The "actors" also give their best at that moment.

Managing non-professional actors and an ever-changing script – what dynamic does that lead to on sets?
I'll give you an example. In Life on Earth [1998], there is a beautiful woman who is silent. But I didn't invent her for this film or write her in the script. I just saw her on the streets in a village. She cycled past the camera and I asked my assistant to catch up with her and find out who she was. Turned out that the girl was not from this village.

In that moment, I decided there should be a character who comes to this village to discover it. That became the turning point for me. I realised she was a stranger here. There was a sadness to her. I asked her to take part in a scene with a phone and call someone, and that's what you see in the film.


Still from Timbuktu

Your films often deal with a sense of displacement and loss of identity. What other themes do you seek in your work?
I live in France, but film mainly in Africa. I prefer talking about what I know or want to learn about. And very often that is something I have lost. Because if you leave your country when you're 19, then, when you are 50, now having lived most of your life abroad, you turn into a different person. Even now, I'm back in Moscow after 20 years and in that time you can forget a lot – except your emotions.

How exactly do the origins of a filmmaker play a part in her work?
I'm from a country that lacks filmmakers. If I think of just making a romance with two people in an apartment, it doesn't appeal to me as a director. That's why I, personally, have to make a choice that will be interesting for the viewers of my country. When I make films, I want people to find out about my country.

Cinema is a universal language. It's the language of images. Each image can be traced to a specific place, and that makes the territory of an artist an important issue. Like all languages, we speak "cinema" with our own intonation. For example, I speak French – not like the French, but I'm still understood. Cinema is the same. As a filmmaker, you bring your own accent to it – your aspirations, doubts and passions.

Following from that, what determined your "accent"?
The entrance exam to the All-Union State University of Cinematography in Moscow. I was 19, from a country where there was no cinema. The admissions committee asked me to name my favourite director. But I didn't know the name of any. They were surprised that I wanted to do film but did not know any director's names.

They tried to help me, citing Truffaut and Godard. The names sounded like chocolate brands to me, because I had never heard of them. Extraordinarily, they accepted me. My lesson from that was: You may not know something, but you should have the desire to know it.

What films had a transformative impact on you?
My answer may seem pretentious, but I don't watch films often. I go to the cinema maybe once a year. When I do see a good film, I am overwhelmed. Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker [1979] did that to me when I was young. After I saw it in Dom Kino [The House of Cinema, an iconic venue in Moscow], I decided to walk home. I didn't want to take the metro. I asked myself, "Am I able to make a film too?" It was that strong an experience for me. It's not even a question of the film being good or not. I was just struck by this capacity of an artist to overwhelm me so much and leave me somewhere else.

Which filmmakers do you consider masters of their art?
Only Tarkovsky, I would say. There are other masters such as Georgy Rerberg, who helped Tarkovsky on Mirror [1975]. He helped me a lot, too. He agreed to become the Director of Photography on October [1993]. He entertained me with his cuisine. We talked about images, and a lot about Mirror. His cinema planted roots within me. Because this cinema, it is not aesthetic.

Those who love Tarkovsky try to imitate him but fail, because their main goal is aestheticism. But Tarkovsky's main talent was to turn literary poetry into cinema. His films touch you the way poetry does.

Timbuktu is released in US cinemas on January 28 and in UK cinemas in May.

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