In May this year, during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival for his Palme d’Or-shortlisted film Timbuktu (2014), Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako broke down and cried. Timbuktu, Sissako’s fourth feature since La Vie sur Terre (Life on Earth, 1998), is a spare and elegiac film. It tells the story of a close-knit Tuareg cattle-herding family who – after a fatal dispute between the family patriarch, Kidane, and a fisherman who kills his cow called ‘GPS’ – get drawn into a wider cataclysm. In 2012, Al Qaeda-linked jihadists took over vast swathes of Northern Mali and introduced a brutal form of Islam intolerant of Mali’s mystical, ascetic and deeply musical Sufi traditions. People were lashed; video games, music and football were banned; and, in Timbuktu, an intellectual and spiritual capital for Islam in Africa, they destroyed parts of a 15th-century mosque and mausoleums of revered holy men.
During the Cannes press conference, Sissako, who lives in Paris, remarked that the events in Mali had flown under the radar of the international press. ‘We remain increasingly indifferent in the face of horror,’ he stated. In many respects, Timbuktu is an act of idiosyncratic witnessing, one in which Sissako’s brand of political reportage is modulated by his allusive approach to visual storytelling. Sissako is not the first African filmmaker to tackle Islam: Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese director who Sissako unsuccessfully solicited to appear in his third feature, Bamako (2006), did the same in his controversial film Ceddo (1977). ‘However much assistance may be given to Africa by the Arab countries, Africans are quite clear among themselves that Islam is an imposed religion,’ stated Sembène in 1978. He regarded Catholicism with similar disdain.
Timbuktu is far less strident. Sissako’s foreign jihadists are fallible, prone to lust and vanity. ‘In every being there is a complexity, there is the good and the bad,’ remarked Sissako in Cannes. ‘A jihadist is someone we can see ourselves in.’ Arguably, religion is not the main subject of Timbuktu; the film is a celebration of Mali’s remarkably tolerant culture. Born in 1961 in the market town of Kiffa, Sissako grew up with his engineer father in Bamako, Mali’s ancient riverside capital. He was 19 when he returned to Mauritania to live with his mother in Nouakchott, an unromantic coastal city founded in 1957.
Sissako’s return forms the subject of his second feature, Heremakono (Waiting for Happiness, 2002), a study of alienation, exile and intergenerational friendship brilliantly performed by amateurs. The film’s action is bracketed by the arrival and departure of bookish Abdallah, whose existential malaise is evident throughout. ‘I had lost my bearings,’ Sissako told philosopher and essayist Kwame Anthony Appiah in a 2003 interview. Cut off from his friends and his language, Sissako killed time by playing table tennis and reading literature at a Russian cultural centre. He also became ‘more observant’ of his surroundings and ‘developed a keener sense of the importance of body language’. Timbuktu bears this out. The scene in which Kidane confronts the fisherman is observed through one long uninterrupted shot. A scuffle ensues, followed by a gunshot. For over half a minute, nothing happens in the off-yellow liquid landscape; only birds chirp. Suddenly, Kidane stands up. The future is open to him: he flees.
Mood is important in Sissako’s elliptical films, image too. Since graduating from Moscow’s prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, Sissako has collaborated with important cinematographers, notably Georgi Rerberg, who worked on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Heremakono was shot by Jacques Besse, who also worked on La petite vendeuse de soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, 1999), Senegalese auteur Djibril Diop Mambéty’s melancholy yet triumphant final film. His latest feature was shot by Sofian El Fani, the cameraman on Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or-winning film Blue Is the Warmest Colour. The connections are revealing – and validate a remark Sembène made at a hotel in Ouagadougou when the pair first met in 1991. Sissako was showing his student film at the local film festival. Returning to his hotel after an all-night bender, he was spotted by the older director at breakfast. ‘I’m sure this guy will go very far,’ quipped Sembène, having mistaken Sissako’s early-morning breakfast appearance for professional brio. But he was right.