A woman publicly lashed for singing in her house
A woman publicly lashed for singing in her house

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)