In the West, Timbuktu has historically been a synonym for a far-flung or mythical locale. Yet the real Malian city is about as far from an Orientalist Vegas as one could get: a trading post that eventually grew into a city housing a university and library with thousands of priceless Islamic texts, the UNESCO World Heritage site is today deeply impoverished largely due to environmental factors (namely, desertification). In 2012, Islamist militants, some of them Tuaregs from Libya, captured the city with the aim of creating an independent state, and imposed strict sharia law upon its inhabitants.

Though much of the coverage of this event focused on the militants’ destruction of those ancient texts, Abderrahmane Sissako (who was born in Mali, grew up in Mauritania, and currently resides in France) began creating his story based on a news report of a couple’s death by stoning during the city’s occupation. Like his previous features Bamako (06) and Waiting for Happiness (02), Sissako’s emphasis on the quotidian unsettles preconceived notions about the weighty reality of radical fundamentalists: cultural contradictions and language barriers abound among the jihadists, while the townspeople are resilient but not irreproachable.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Sissako about the art of filmmaking, and destroying beauty, last October during the New York Film Festival.


Your films seem made to express an African point of view to Western audiences. How do you go about engineering that?

I don’t think I go about it with that specific objective, because rather than emphasizing a difference, 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. But it’s true, if you do have a specific geographic location and maybe a specific event like this conflict that’s going on there right now, that does give it more of a specificity.

In the topics you’ve chosen to make films about—if it’s the World Bank (Bamako), if it’s terrorism (Timbuktu), if it’s what it means to be in an interracial relationship in Russia (October)—there is an attempt to convey viewpoints that haven’t been well represented in cinema. Africa hosts the third-largest film industry in the world thanks to Nollywood, and that’s helped close the gap just by numbers alone, but it’s a mixed bag.

It’s true that Nigeria has a huge film industry right now. They’re films that are made for local consumption. But it’s important to remember that Nigeria is also a country where they make lots of lots of tires, and lots and lots of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. It’s a country where productivity is what’s placed in the fore, and not necessarily quality. They make auto parts that aren’t any good—you can use them in your car, but they don’t last very long. So I don’t really think it’s as wide-reaching. But what I find interesting about their cinema is that the people who are watching it, they see themselves, their daily lives reflected on the screen.

What attracts you to the medium?

It’s very complicated, because it’s true I’m not constantly seeing films. I love making films, but I don’t at all like the process of making films. Maybe one explanation is that 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.


Are there any other sources or media that you draw from?

I think the main source of my inspiration is human beings: my neighbor, my neighbor’s neighbor, the person I buy milk from—all of those people. These people who we call “anonymous,” people who we never really see doing anything. If I’m out and I see a statue of someone, and I look up at the statue, I never bother to look on the bottom to see who he was. I could be on the metro one day and cross paths with a woman who gave birth to 10 children, and nobody knows her. That’s an achievement too.

There are many different strands of story in Timbuktu, some of which intersect and others that exist entirely independently. How did you approach the editing process?

It’s true that the film 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.

Do you plan it out before, or is it that as you see the images on a screen, you come to an understanding of how they fit together as a whole?

I plan a lot in advance. I work a lot in my head, which is why I have a lot of trouble working with a continuity person—their logic is totally different from mine.


What makes a compelling frame?

That’s a really good question, because I know the answer! 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.” And that’s why there are very few wide shots.

You once said something to the effect that you would never apply the aesthetics of the city to the desert. How do you conceive of different spaces as you’re creating the film?

It’s funny, what I really try to do is destroy the beauty of a location. That’s why I don’t have lingering shots on the beauty of the countryside. It stays beautiful because it is beautiful—that’s just how it is. But I always come back to the person.