Discovering the Essence of Fiction With 'Timbuktu' Director Abderrahmane Sissako

Photo: Arnaud Contreras

Academy Award for Best Foreign Film nominee director Abderrahmane Sissako discusses working with non-professional actors, difficult technical shots, and the meaning of receiving Mauitania's first-ever Oscar nomination.


Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Cohen Media Group
Year: 2014
US Release Date: 2015-01-28

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu is set in the title city during the occupation by Islamic group Ansar Dine. The film shows how the locals try to keep on with their daily lives as the jihadists impose their repressive laws on them; women are harassed for not wearing gloves and exposing their hands, music and entertainment are prohibited, and the jihadists sometimes even seem to forget why they're doing what they do, as an elder member of the community has to remind them not to enter a holy temple carrying their guns and weapons.

"I personally think that in all societies women are the ones who are stronger and they play the most important role..."
A beautifully made film about some of the worst traits in humanity, Timbuktu is remarkable for its realism, with Sissako putting together his scenes as intimate slices of life, instead of movie-like sequences. He extracts touching performances from his eclectic ensemble and is wise enough not to make the thinking for the audience, to let the audience do the thinking. Timbuktu is not a film about fundamentalism, but a film made despite in spite of fundamentalism.

After its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. the film has gone on to collect awards all over the world and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. We spoke to Sissako on the eve of the film's premiere at the New York Film Festival, and he discussed the themes, casting and importance of Timbuktu.

* * *

Even though I knew the film was a work of fiction, and you weren't using professional actors, I was still somewhat surprised to see a list of actors in the credits because they all seem so present and unaware of the cameras. How were you able to maintain this sense of extreme realism throughout?

I think that's really the essence, the role, of what fiction is. It's something that is there to move you, it's there to capture you and take hold of you, but in the end ultimately it's fiction, and that's just what fiction should be when it works well.

How did you find all the actors for Timbuktu?

You probably may know this but in my country the film industry isn't particularly well developed, nor is the theatre industry, so when you're looking to find actors to play in a film you don't really have a casting director to give you a list of people who might be appropriate, you don't have the opportunity to see a lot of them in films and to say you've seen their work. So really for a film like this you just go out to the streets and you find people.

What you do is you try to find people who want to share this particular experience, this particular adventure with you. Even though there isn't a built up film industry or a traditional theatre, there is a strong tradition of music so I did look among a lot of musicians. For example Toulou Kiki who plays Satima, the mother in the film, she's a singer; Ibrahim Ahmed is also a musician, who lives in Spain now, and Abel Jafri lives in Paris.

Since you had so many artists contributing, did they bring about any creative changes to the film?

I think that actors, whether they're professional or nonprofessional, always give something of themselves, and if they don't they don't exist on the screen. For example Ibrahim Ahmed, the words that he uses in the dialogue, those are his words, his contribution. In one of the scenes I asked to one of the actors playing the jihadists to go out there and talk to their daughter, to think about her while he was playing the scene. So the actor talked about how his daughter would bring him water in the morning, and that is something that was from his own experience.

The film's faraway setting has been described as "exotic", and I found it really interesting how you show people who live in the dunes and own cell phones. There's also this wonderful moment in which the jihadists argue over Spanish soccer. There's a sense of a dichotomy that exists between the ancient and the modern.

The world has changed. We're in a world that's connected. People who live in the dunes will certainly seem exotic in America, but if you took this family and put them in the middle of New York's Seventh Avenue, maybe that would be equally exotic to them. [laughs] We're all on the same earth and of course people are connected, sometimes with difficulty. You also noticed that the cow in the film is called GPS, this was my way of showing that everything that happens there is actually not so far from us.

So you can imagine that this drama is taking place in some distant place, but a little girl who cries in a place far away, can be heard here as well. That's the essence of the story and what moved me. Dostoyevsky was the one who said that about the child crying, and he also said that when you look around, he actually rejected the universality of success, because when you look down to it, all of it is built on a foundation that consists of the tears of a child.

This is just to tell you that there is no kind of evil and sadness that is beyond us, even though they may be far away you can still live their experiences.

Timbuktu features scenes that are, so to speak, "ripped from the headlines", moments of violence and cruelty at the hands of extremists that many of us only read about. Can you talk about bringing this to film?

It's true that very often how the press reports on things, how it tells us about things, is extremely superficial, and it often emphasizes the political drama of it and this is mostly what we read. What they don't tell you is about the suffering and how the suffering is experienced on an individual level. I think you can read in the newspaper that music is prohibited, or that soccer is prohibited, but what I wanted to do was go beyond that and show what it means. I film what it means when music is prohibited, I show the young woman who is whipped because she wanted to make music.

You showcase very strong women who'd rather suffer the punishments of the extremists than give up on what they know to be right. I found this to be quite moving because women suffer terribly under totalitarian regimes.

I personally think that in all societies women are the ones who are stronger and they play the most important role, but it's much more visible when you're dealing with a society that's in crisis. I think they are more capable of revolting than men are, I think women have no cowardice, they're not afraid.

The difference is in two scenes, for example there's a scene where the police ask a man to roll up his pants and he complies, in another scene they tell a woman to wear gloves, she refuses and tells them they can cut off her hands.

Allow me to get technical for a second. I'm very curious about how you set up that incredible long shot in which we see one of the characters commit a crime he is practically forced to commit. I think this captured the whole essence of the film, because you never cut away, the camera never leaves, so it makes us involved and it reminds us that this is happening in our world.

I think that when a scene like this works, it's only someone like you, the viewer, who can say why it works. I can tell you how it was made; I knew I had very little time because the sun was about to set, and I first had to shoot the tighter shots in which the characters are fighting and then go shoot the wider shot. I told them, "Look, after you do this I'll split, go up there and will be quite far from you, so you won't be able to hear my directions, so I'll tell you what I want you to do." The night before I worked out the whole shot with cinematographer Sofian El Fani.

Last, can you share your impressions on having your film selected as Mauritania's official Oscar submission?

It's something that's very important for a country like Mauritania and for Africa, too. Because these kinds of things don't happen very often for Africa, so to be nominated for an Oscar, which is really a showcase for a film like this, is an honor. And for a subject like this to actually make it to the Oscars is extremely important.

If you think about it, the reality is that for the last 20 years we've been living in a world that's been afflicted by this disease. So for me it was very important, to be nominated would be an opportunity and to win, no comment, that would just be ... [smiles]

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