Abderrahmane Sissako, Timbuktu

Screen International, November 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Abderrahmane Sissako, Timbuktu


The spread of Islamic fundamentalism across Africa has flung many ordinary Muslims' lives into turmoil. Timbuktu director Abderrahmane Sissako tells Elbert Wyche why he wanted to express their story

In July 2012, in a small city in northern Mali, a man and a woman were buried to their necks and stoned to death. Their crime was the existence of their two young children, born out of wedlock. Their story went largely unnoticed.

"I can't say I didn't know and, now that I do, I must testify in the hopes that no child will ever again have to learn their parents died because they loved each other," says Abderrahmane Sissako, the director of Timbuktu, a film inspired by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism across Africa. It is clearly tough subject matter but one of the year's most relevant films; Cohen Media Group acquired US rights after the world premiere in Competition at Cannes. The film is now Mauritania's submission for the foreign-language Oscar.

Timbuktu centres on a herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), whose happy and peaceful life in the dunes with his wife (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed) is thrown upside down when circumstances lead him to face the new laws of the foreign occupants.

Stories about average people who are forced to endure extraordinary circumstances are what led Sissako (Bamako, Waiting For Happiness) to film-making. He remembers: "Very early on I had the sense that I was living in a world that was not very fair. But I was often amazed by people's beauty. There were people who had nothing but who could easily burst into laughter, while remaining in their state of poverty. I always felt like I had to tell their story and talk about them -- the anonymous people."

Harsh times

Timbuktu examines the misery the ancient capital experiences once Islamic funda-mentalists have taken over the city. Music is outlawed, football is banned and laughter is punishable by stoning. Women are oppressed and threatened as improvised courts issue sentences as absurd as they are unjust.

In December 2013, Sissako began shooting in Walata, Mauritania: the town where his grandfather grew up. For the director, it was as if he had come home. But it was a place not without its dangers. …

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