Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu somehow balances the urgency of current events with the grace and timelessness of a story told in the shade of a village tree. Set in and around the North African city of its title, where newly arrived jihadists enforce religious law with brutality, the film centers on a stubborn cattle herder and his family resisting encroachment. Yet Sissako’s eye takes in a tapestry of characters, all considered with humanity: a jihadi convert enmeshed in self-doubt, a young bride conscripted into marriage, a mysterious witch-woman bearing silent witness to the menace and folly around her. As a devastating panorama of a community being suffocated of all life, Timbuktu is made the more poignant by the beauty of its landscapes, music, and faces. Like a great poet, Sissako invests this beauty with the capacity to stand in meaningful protest. At a time when Islamic extremism and Western militarism feed off each other in a perpetual fever, Timbuktu is required viewing not only for its deeply felt indignation but also for its humanism, poetry, and tact. Timbuktu will be released on January 28th.
Joshua Sperling (Rail): Timbuktu portrays a contemporary situation that is extremely politicized and violent. What challenges did such a subject pose for you as a storyteller?
Abderrahmane Sissako: When I make a film I don’t know at the outset what it will be. In the initial phase I am focused simply on bringing into being each element of the story. I work as if it were a job. As I move forward, I involve the others who work with me—whether the technicians, the actors, the extras. We all share in this act of making a film. Even those actors who won’t be in front of the camera for days remain on the set with us. I tell them, “Maybe you’ll be up tomorrow, I’m not sure.” That’s just how I work: I am always immersed in this process of searching. And so the emotions of the film—the emotions that viewers experience—are emotions that we have lived together. That is the particularity of this film. I would also say that what happens today has already existed before today. This is something the world ignores. It’s not like what happened a month ago came out of nowhere. But we have just decided to talk about it right now. I have never known a serious drama that hasn’t also existed in the past.
Rail: You spoke of the community of the filmmaking process, and the film is very much about community. But it is also about family and about the individual. The connections between these three levels—the community, the family, the individual—are drawn in a way quite different from what we are used to seeing in the cinema. How did you articulate these connections to yourself?
Sissako: Your vision is precise. I would like people to see Timbuktu as a movie about family, not only about jihadism. Of course, we cannot say it is not about jidhadism. But it is also about family, couples, fatherhood. And about death, about the consciousness of losing something or someone. I think this reading is extremely important. It’s even more so because of how much our contemporary reality prevents us from seeing it this way. I think this film will be understood very differently in the future.
With regard to the connections you speak of, this concerns the secret inner will that exists at the core of each artist. It is the reason that makes him make the film he makes, without him consciously knowing it. There is of course the pretext of the film, which helps to set the film on its path and get the production underway. But deep inside myself I see Timbuktu as reflecting my own personal changes over the previous years.
Rail: Your last film, Bamako, is from 2006.
Sissako: Yes, for many years I didn’t make a film. And after Bamako, when I became recognized as an artist, I had many opportunities. But despite this privilege, I haven’t made anything. This is because I have had two daughters—now five and seven years old. So it is no secret why I speak about fatherhood in this film. If I hadn’t had children, I wouldn’t have made such a personal, emotional film.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about the relation between Timbuktu and Bamako. When Bamako was released you described Africa as a “zone of injustice.” In that film, the injustice is at the hands of the IMF, the World Bank, and the forces of capitalist neo-colonialism. In Timbuktu it seems to be at the hands of extremist Islam. Do you see Africa as caught between these two forces?
Sissako: There is a sentence in Timbuktu that makes the connection to Bamako. It’s in the scene with the video camera where the jihadists are coaching the ex-rapper to speak of his conversion. They ask him against whom he now fights. He says: “Against the West.” And the jihadists say, “No, you fight against injustice.” This says a lot, but it’s not what you immediately think. What it means is that these kinds of people are in fact motivated by something that goes beyond religion. They are motivated by the reality of a rich world which does not share and which is not able to share. That does not excuse violence, but it’s born of frustration—be it political or familial. Why do women occupy such a central concern for the jihadists? They are covered, pushed to marry, and when they are married they are treated almost like a beast of burden. The jihadists speak about purity but the reality is almost rape. This is where the frustration appears. So the people we are talking about are in an unstable world and Timbuktu is speaking about this instability.
Rail: The same could be said of Bamako, but the political realities are very different.
Sissako: For me it was important to make a film different from Bamako. Bamako was a shout of protest. It was a shout for the World Bank and the IMF to admit their wrongdoing and complicity in the development failures of the last 30 years. And these are institutions that have no recourse for justice within them. The nations they work with cannot take them to trial. By inventing just such a trial in Bamako, I adopt a tone that points the finger squarely at what is to blame, which is capital and the corruption not just of local politicians but also of the World Bank itself. That was the choice I made in Bamako. But after Bamako I always had this feeling that I wasn’t entirely fair. In making Timbuktu I felt the film had to be told from inside myself, not outside. Because if you are always placing blame elsewhere, there will be no full resolution.
Rail: I saw Timbuktu at the New York Film Festival. The first thing I heard after the screening was a man beside me say: “We have to destroy those people.” Do you reject this reaction to your film? It is a sentiment we hear often in our current political discourse.
Sissako: I want to avoid this simplistic answer. There is rarely a true victory in war. The idea of “winning” a war is, I think, a very blurry notion. If it weren’t, then the first President Bush would have resolved something. But he didn’t. Maybe he even made things worse. I don’t think killing people en masse will stop anything and faced with the violence of the jihadists we do need an intervening force. I wouldn’t put it the way the man you heard did—although I understand the emotion behind his comment, and I can even share that emotion somehow. This is a question that belongs to humanity and must be resolved progressively. It is also fundamental to understand that in this situation the first victim is Islam. The non-Muslim world must understand that Islam is not a problem; rather Islam has a problem and must resolve that problem. And while this problem may concern Muslims first, it also concerns everyone. Had such an understanding been made clear from the outset we may have made a better first step toward a resolution.
Rail: What has the reaction been in Africa to the film?
Sissako: There hasn’t been a reaction yet because they haven’t seen it! Only in Mauritania has there been a release so far. I stayed there three days and I can speak about the reactions in the theater, which were incredible. In Mauritania almost everyone is Muslim. In the scene where the children play soccer without the ball, everyone cheered. And when the woman sings as she is beaten, the audience applauded her protest. People are very conscious of the struggle.
Rail: The texture of your work is always striking in its balance of local specificity with an awareness of how global everything has become. I’m thinking of the discussion in Timbuktu about Messi and Zidane. Or that the family’s cow is named GPS. How do you calibrate this balance—or this juxtaposition—between the local and the globalized detail?
Sissako: For me this is quite simply what is normal. In the desert there is always someone: it’s almost as if there was a crowd because there is always someone. [Laughs.] And the people there—I know them because I come from there—are connected. They know what is happening in the world. I wanted to show this to break any image that was exotic. For me the telephone was important because it’s a part of life there. They search for a signal, it may not always work, but it’s an important part of life. And when I hire a 4×4 many of them search for the address by GPS. It exists. Orientation is very important in the desert. Of course they had their own forms of navigation before, but as soon as GPS appeared they were using it. So it made sense to me that the favorite cow would be named GPS. This represented something important. I tried to be as observant of the life around me as I could be. And I also wanted to break with the idea that these people are far away—that the story takes place in a distant land. By placing a GPS here or a telephone there, we get the sense of the connectedness of the world.
Rail: The film opens and closes with a very powerful image. We see a close-up of a deer, being chased, galloping over dunes. When did you know you wanted to begin and end your film this way?
Sissako: In this particular case I already knew how to begin the film. Ending with the same image was something I had avoided so as not to remain within a certain form of cinema, if that makes sense. I am always afraid of falling into that mindset: the loose end perfectly tied up, and so on. I find stylization to be dangerous for the cinema. So I was thinking of ending with just the girl. Yet I had the feeling by ending this way we may forget where the film began. For me, the animal at the start encapsulates everything. It is the beauty the jihadists want to imprison. It is fragility, harmony—all of which is under attack. And this is what Timbuktu embodies: beauty, tolerance, true faith. I wanted to end the film in this way to say that no matter what, these qualities will remain. They cannot be destroyed by acts of violence.
Joshua Sperling is a Ph.D. student in Literature and Film at Yale University. His writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, and Bullett Magazine.