When it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, which takes place during a 2012 Jihadist takeover of Northern Mali, was recognized as a remarkably topical movie that was still exemplary of its director’s generous, lyrical vision of the world. In his review of the film this week, David Edelstein writes: “For a film that makes you sick with dread, Timbuktu has a light, at times glancing touch. Sissako’s frames are open, uninsistent, and he even shows some sympathy for his villains, who are severe but not sadistic.” Ever since its premiere, the film’s topicality has only grown — as has the power of its humanism. The film also represents a major breakthrough for its director. The 53-year-old Sissako, who was born in Mauritania but works mostly in Mali, is today among Africa’s foremost living filmmakers, with such notable films as the lyrical, understated drama Waiting for Happiness (2002) and the anti-globalization legal comedy-drama Bamako (2006) on his résumé. But Timbuktu, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, might be the most prominent, ambitious, and passionate film he’s made yet. Sissako spoke with us during the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall.
While you don’t shy away from showing the horror of their actions, your depiction of the Islamic militants in Timbuktu still remains deeply humanist. I was struck by the fact that you show them as people, not just monsters.
I think it’s quite interesting that humanism can be surprising at all. After all, humanism is related to humanity, and that is what we all are. But this is a good indication of the kind of world that we’re living in right now; the abnormal has become normal.
And, ironically, seeing them as people somehow makes their actions more disturbing. We can’t just think about them as monsters.
I think that’s exactly it. That’s what’s so terrible. It’s interesting because there’s a scene that specifically shows this, where the head Jihadist acknowledges that he knows that once Kidane is executed, his daughter will become an orphan. He says, “I know your daughter will be an orphan,” but then says to the interpreter, “Don’t interpret that.” In a way, he’s revealing his humanity, but he doesn’t want to show it.
Can you discuss the character of the Imam? I recall reading that a real-life Imam inspired the film.
He wasn’t a direct inspiration for it, but what the Imam says, and what Islam means to him, is a vision of Islam that I share as well. In a way, he was an indirect influence on the film. I suppose that in every film, there is at least one character who resembles the creator of the film. But you know, in Timbuktu, which is noted for being a city of tolerance, many of the Imams are like this. And during the occupation, the Imam of Timbuktu fought against the invaders just as you see this man doing in the film. So the character of the Imam in the film is inspired by that real-life Imam.
Your film arrives at a time when there’s a lot of news about ISIS and other Islamist militant organizations. That makes it topical, but do you worry that the film will become overshadowed by real-life events?
No, because I haven’t really thought about what the film could do in those terms. So I haven’t really thought about whether the film could be overshadowed by such things. I don’t think this is the kind of film that becomes very popular. But I do think — and hope — that it’s a film that will find its audience, and maybe what’s happening in the news will help it to find its audience.
In Timbuktu, the militants come from outside — they’re invaders. As in many of your other films, power is always located somewhere elsewhere. In Bamako, it’s in the hands of the World Bank and the West. In Life on Earth, we keep hearing New Year’s broadcasts from France. In Waiting for Happiness, it seems as if everything the characters own comes from some distant place. Your characters are often at the mercy of external forces, it seems.
A film is really a way of telling a story about yourself. It’s a way of showing the world around me, the people around me, the things that affect me. And the characters I usually show are usually very simple people, anonymous people. Most of them are people that fascinate me through their honesty, and their courage, their ability to survive the difficulties they’re faced with, which often come from someplace else. I find in my characters qualities that I myself don’t have, but that I would like to have. But sometimes in these characters I find that they have something that I share with them. This is really a way for me to think of how “the other” is also me. When I choose the locations for my stories, it’s often a way of showing the universality of these stories.
Your stories tend to unfold very organically. They don’t go from point A to point B to point C. Other characters show up briefly, the story digresses into different areas. The overall effect is of ordinary life unfolding, rather than a story being told. How do you create a narrative? How do you write your scripts? How do you know, for example, when you have a story?
First of all, that’s a real compliment, thank you. I think my starting point is the idea that when cinema was born, it was never defined. There was never a specific idea of what it was supposed to be. It could be narrative, or it could not. It’s a language — it’s a way of communicating a story to another person. And really, each filmmaker approaches this differently, either because of their sensibility or because of a background in a particular style of cinema that reflects the way they think. Every director comes to it differently. And there isn’t one specific way that we can say it better than another. I went to film school, and I was in a class that was between 10 and 15 people. And we were there for six years. We took classes together, we went to lectures together. But all of us went out, and every one of us is making films in our own, very different way.
No one’s ever asked me this question, but maybe the reason I came to cinema is because I had no background as a cinephile. I’m still that way. I can spend a whole year and not go see a single film. My passion is to make films, not necessarily to watch them. Maybe that gives me a kind of freedom, a kind of deep conviction. And maybe that’s how I would define what a filmmaker is: It’s someone who has this very deep conviction, but who doesn’t really dare to say it or to show it. And if there’s something that interests me the least is actually shooting the film. My dream is to have made a film without ever having to shoot it. Because the process makes me very anxious. I don’t like working on a set. It’s not a pleasurable part of it for me. So this is really a process of great fragility as I look at the films I want to make. And my films reflect that — they are also very fragile. They tell a very small story. [Pause.] It’s really very difficult to talk about what you yourself do. [Laughs.]
Your depiction of violence is also quite unique — almost demure. Both in this film and in Bamako, you show violence as being very casual. It’s not graphic, but that makes it somehow even more horrific.
Yes. Because that’s what real violence is. It isn’t spectacular. And that’s why for me the indifference that people have when they’re watching, say, the death of someone else, is the most horrible aspect of violence. The most horrible scene in Timbuktu, for me, is when they interrogate Kidane. The real violence is there in that moment of the interrogation, when someone tells someone else, “You’re going to die and it’s going to be very soon.” Despite the fact that the head Jihadi speaks to him about his daughter, he’s completely indifferent. That’s what violence is. And that’s how I express my idea of violence. And unlike a lot of films that are very open in the way they show violence, I want to make my films in such a way that you’re almost living it.
How has the response been in that part of the world to the events you depict onscreen? Obviously this is still a raw period in the recent past for a lot of people.
I was present recently when we showed it in Mauritania, and I saw the reaction. The audience reacted to two specific scenes, which to me were very important. The first was when we saw the men playing soccer without the ball, the people in the audience started to applaud. And then, when we saw the singer being beaten and she continued to sing, they applauded as well. They appreciated and they understood this form of resistance.