“These Are Normal People”: Talking to ‘Timbuktu’ Director Abderrahmane Sissako

01/28/2015 10:34 AM |

Director Abderrahmane Sissako on the set of TIMBUKTU.  Courtesy

In April 2012, jihadists identifying themselves as both Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) seized the Malian city of Timbuktu, which they held hostage for another ten months. Although Timbuktu was eventually retaken by soldiers from France, Mali and Chad a little over a year later, the city—population, 54,000—hasn’t been the same, with tourism cratering, construction contracts frozen, and basic day-to-day prices having skyrocketed. Malian-Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako dramatizes the takeover in his spellbinding Timbuktu, but the setting is kept vague: the film takes place in one of the many smaller villages in northern Mali, gently underscoring that the same vulnerabilities apply to towns shorn of the capital city’s mythic melting-pot reputation. Sissako’s film offers a quiet rebuttal against Western stereotyping of Islamic terror: the kalashnikov-wielding invaders hail from all over the Arabian Peninsula, led by a Libyan who doesn’t even speak any of the local languages and must resort to third-hand English translation(!) to enforce his warped, makeshift idea of sharia. The contradictions of itinerant jihad may be on full display, but Sissako’s aim is less point-scoring than a docudrama both world-weary and ironic.

The film—which is having a surprisingly good box office run in France—could not come at a more appropriate time. In saying that, I’m not referencing the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, but rather the latest round of attacks in northeastern Nigeria, in which over two thousand innocent people were massacred by Boko Haram—an event whose coverage in the Western media has been muted at best. As much a cautionary tale as an ensemble act of remembrance, Timbuktu is a much-needed corrective to the numbers game that is Western awarness of Islamofascism; the fear of death comes to Sissako’s desert village not in one fell swoop but in a steady, granular trickle, with the all-too-exploitable geopolitics of the broader situation in Mali kept at a cool-headed remove. The most tragic of events—including the stoning of an unmarried couple, which Sissako claims inspired his first draft—are made all the more devastating for their sobriety of vision, but Sissako’s eye also refuses to flinch before quotidian moments of beauty, however snuffed out they become—giving a stronger imprint, ultimately, to what is lost rather than how it is taken.

I spoke with Sissako following the film’s US premiere at last fall’s New York Film Festival; our conversation is below. When it bows in NYC today, you’ll have no problem looking past—or to use Sissako’s term, “beyond”—facile qualifiers like “world cinema”, and seeing Timbuktu merely for what it is: a masterpiece of anti-sensationalism.

Special thanks to interpreter Ellen Sowcheck for making this interview possible.

Like many people, my introduction to your work was Bamako. That film had a significant audience here, to the point it seemed many Americans who were seeing it had never even heard of the World Bank or the IMF. You described Africa then as a “zone of injustice.” So I guess this is a question about your career. Can you talk about the pressure you feel—or don’t feel—as a filmmaker who addresses quote-unquote African issues? Not just pertaining to one individual country, but the continent’s profile at large?

Well, I think cinema plays a number of different roles. It’s just like literature: you have popular literature, where you read it and you forget it. And then there are works that really grab us, really take hold of us and stay with us. And in saying that—I’m complimenting myself. [Laughs] But that’s not my intention. This is just to say, when you’re a filmmaker from Africa, where very few films are made, in a place where the film industry is not developed, you can’t just do any old film. I wouldn’t make a film that I felt somebody else could make, or would be able to make. I think what I do is, in my films I try to talk about the great challenges that are confronting us, as Africans, with which we have to deal. And to say that the misfortunes of Africa, whatever they are, could very well take place here.

Since you mentioned Bamako: in that film, the trial, you know, it shows what the World Bank did there in Mali. But the World Bank did the same thing in Buenos Aires, it did the same thing elsewhere; it wasn’t something that was specifically “African,” it’s something that reflects globalization, as it exists. And I think what Bamako does is, it shows you art can create this idea of bringing the World Bank to trial. But that doesn’t exist in the real world, because we think that the world is very democratic and very open, but… it’s not like that. So the choice to make Timbuktu is similar, even if it’s not the same. What I wanted to do was, I wanted to show the impact—what it means—when a city is taken hostage. I think what happens is, 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.

One of the things I liked about the film is, the captors are experienced via contact with the locals—really, it could be any radical terrorist group. In the press conference, you talked about trying to create real villains who nonetheless are not cartoon characters. So…. if Bamako was a way to conduct a trial via filmmaking, is this your means of trying to capture a jihadist’s inverse point of view?

…. Yes, in a sense, because after all they 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. And 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. Abu-Jabbar, he probably came for another reason. This is what I want to say: these are normal people. And 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.

Building on that, can you talk a little bit about developing your characters with the cast? You have actors from different countries, speaking different languages. Many films, the character’s life begins when the film starts, and ends when it ends—and Timbuktu actually engages this idea very directly, especially in your ending.

That’s why I gave the example of the little girl, at the press conference: because in fact, I invented a character who is three years old, and reality imposed something else on me—an older girl where we were shooting. So I let myself go with it, and this little girl proved to be amazing. I mean, she just lights up the film. I realized, a three-year-old child might not have been able to give me that. So the writing of a film must always be open. That’s how it worked here. An actor doesn’t learn his or her role; they live it.

So you’re looking for people who embody your ideas? Or do stronger ideas come from knowing who you’re working with?

The second. 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. I never do rehearsals.

Never?

No. I put them in a situation and we film. The night before, I will sit down with them and drink some tea; we’ll discuss what’s going to happen, maybe. But not a lot.

What brought you to the point of refusing rehearsals? In most film schools, they’d tell you there’s no such thing as too much rehearsal.

You know, I think school is one thing, reality is another. I studied film in Moscow; it was very academic, but I never made their kinds of films. I think there are so many different ways you can make a film, it’s not really important which one you choose. What’s important is that the one you choose is able to create the emotion you want.

So even if you have just a blueprint, you know with certainty which emotion you’re after.

Yes. I don’t share a lot with my actors—I avoid it, I want them to really enter into the story, so when they arrive on set, they don’t feel strong, because they don’t know all that much. Because of that, they’re gonna have to really search deep inside of themselves—in a place that I couldn’t go to. They have to find it themselves. So there are situations like the interview between Kidane and the head jihadist, when he speaks about his life and his daughter. What I told him is, “When you’re playing the scene, talk to him about your real daughter. And what she means to you. And you’re not afraid to die, but this is what your child means for you.” By the time the scene started, he had internalized what I had told him, and he had made it part of him. So it began to come out. What he says, those are his own words, his own emotions he’s expressing, and those tears that you see on his face are genuine. I did not put water on his cheeks to create them. When I told him that he had to say, “I’m not afraid of death,” those are my words. What he added was when he says, “I’ve already made a place for it inside of me.” Those are the actor’s words. The text about the daughter was his own.

Have you ever had a situation where the reality of the shooting day totally conflicted with what was on paper? Your technique sounds close, too, to documentary.

I really have the feeling that there are more gifts in the actual shooting; this is why I hate going onto a set. I get no pleasure making a film. But when something really wonderful and good happens, I’m happy. And I don’t really have the kinds of conflicts you describe while I’m shooting. Sometimes I’m a little worried, a little weak about it, but during the editing I feel great.

I read that you first wanted to shoot in Mali, but French military interventions there meant you had to shoot in Mauritania. Can you talk a little bit about that?

In fact, I had done some scouting of locations in Timbuktu itself, but about a month before shooting was to take place, there was a suicide bombing attack. So I had no choice; I had to find another place very quickly. But I already had this Plan B in mind. There was very little time to prepare another shoot, because it’s complicated; it would have been much easier to film in a single location in Timbuktu. But that’s what a film is.

At the press screening, Timbuktu was compared to both The Mortal Storm and Grand Illusion, relative to their anti-Nazism. I thought it was a strange comparison. Do people offer a lot of parallels that you don’t agree with?

You know, these kinds of comparisons don’t bother me too much. I have two daughters; one looks more like me than the other one, but they are both my daughters. [Laughter] 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.