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FESPACO: Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’ Withdrawn From Competition for “Security Reasons” (Director Disagrees)

FESPACO: Abderrahmane Sissako's 'Timbuktu' Withdrawn From Competition for "Security Reasons" (Director Disagrees)

A year after his internationally acclaimed “Timbuktu” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film has been yanked from the lineup of the 24th Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), which kicks off in 2 days, in Burkina Faso, West Africa – a festival that occurs only once every two years.

Reasons for the withdrawal? Security concerns on the festival’s part, says Jeune Afrique magazine, in consideration of “the current environment in West Africa.” We can assume they are referring to the escalating battle against Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which has inflicted years of terror on northern Nigeria, in an attempt to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa’s most populous nation, which is split between a majority Muslim north and a mostly Christian south. It’s a war that surrounding countries are invested in, as heads of state in Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger are uniting regionally to tackle the group – one that is now reportedly wooing ISIS.

Sissako, whose “Timbuktu” was inspired by the real-life story of the 2012 stoning of a young unmarried couple, by Islamists, in a Northern Mali town called Aguelhok (a horribly tragic incident that drew international media attention, and motivated the filmmaker to address on film) disagrees with FESPACO’s decision not the show the film – a vibrant fictional protest against religious fundamentalism (so you can see why the festival may be a little worried about what might result in screening it, given all that’s currently happening around them).

But according to Jeune Afrique, who reached out to Sissako, this is what he had to say in response (in my best French to English translation): “It does not surprise me because FESPACO management contacted me in recent days to discuss the possibility [of them not screening the film]. Obviously I’m not supportive of this decision, which was made without taking my feelings into consideration.”

The magazine also adds that there might be a re-consideration of that decision, which will be announced today. But nothing thus far.

For those in the USA, while not exactly similar circumstances, this recalls Sony’s decision not to show “The Interview” in theaters, in response to threats of deadly violence by alleged North Korean hackers. Sony did eventually open the film, albeit in far fewer theaters than initially planned. It also released the film on various home video platforms. 

As for Sissako, he returns to the 68th Cannes Film Festival (May 13-24), to serve as President of the Cinéfondation sidebar and Short Films Jury, marking a first for the director (heading a Cannes jury), and also the first time that a director of African descent has been asked to preside over a Cannes jury.

“I would never want to make a film that somebody else could make, and I want to see films that I would never make. What’s important to me is the cinema of anonymity – addressing the conflicts but above all the suffering endured by anonymous people – empowering them and making them visible, testifying to their courage and their beauty,” Sissako has said about what inspires his work, evident in “Timbuktu.”

The film was also feted by both the Lumières awards – essentially the French equivalent of the Golden Globes (Best Film of the Year and Best Director); and by the César Awards – the French equivalent of the Oscars, picking up an astounding 7 wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Design, Best Original Music.

For those in the USA, you should know that Cohen Media Group released the film theatrically, starting late last month, on January 28. Check your local listings to find out if it’s playing at a theater near you currently.

Kicking off its 2015 edition in 2 days (February 28, 2015) is the 24th Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), happening in Burkina Faso, West Africa – a festival that occurs only once every two years – and will run through March 7, 2015, with “African Cinema: Production and Distribution in the Digital Era” as this edition’s theme.

The festival’s lineup of “in competition” and “out of competition” films, below, includes a total of 134 titles (shorts, features), representing several countries across the continent.

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