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Promoting Tolerance: Abderrahmane Sissako on ‘Timbuktu’ and a Different Kind of Islam

Oscars: Abderrahmane Sissako on 'Timbuktu' and a Different Kind of Islam

Tyrants wish to
silence the sounds of joy with fear. They seek to impose their depraved vision
of the world on other by means of brute force. Often the only result is
senseless violence and the absence of reason. This is the reality experienced
in many places around the world where extremism reigns and tolerance has
evaporated. Today, perhaps more than ever, a film like Abderrahmane Sissako’s
spellbinding  “Timbuktu” is imperative. Capturing some of the most beautiful
African landscapes ever seen on film and delicately arranging his stories to
create a tapestry of human experiences, Sissako’s latest doesn’t abide by any
political or religious dogma. Instead, his vision preaches openness and
denounces the terrifying absurdity of the world according to extremist.

We had a chance
to talk to the revered African director during the most recent New York Film
Festival about the city that inspired it all, the images that struck him, and
the version of Islam he wanted to depict.

Timbuktu” is currently playing in theaters (distributed b Cohen
Media Group) and it’s nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign
Language Film

Carlos Aguilar: Why was this devastating image of woman being stoned so important to you and your film?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
For me, to think about two people whose only crime was to have two children together going through this is really an incredible thing. It’s a man and a
woman. They are a symbolic. How can they be capable killing two people simply for having given birth to children?

Aguilar: What makes this city, Timbuktu, so particular? Why did you decide to set the film there rather than in your native Mauritania?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
The film was shot in Mauritania, but the story takes place in Timbuktu, Mali. I chose Timbuktu because it’s a symbol. I’m sure you’ve heard the name
Timbuktu, you’ll probably never go there, but you know it exists. You have an idea of what it is. I think what was important for me was that this was a
city that had been taken hostage. It was important for me to tell the story about what’s happening there. It was taken hostage precisely because it’s a
symbolic city. It’s a city where Islam is the dominant faith, but it’s a very open faith, it’s not dogmatic in any way. Timbuktu is a city where people
have discussions, conversations. It’s a very open city. Also, it’s because of this very openness that they were taken hostage by these extremists.

Aguilar: The jihadists want to homogenize Islam as a bloodthirsty religion where there is no room for diversity or conflicting opinions. But your film
shows a mosaic of what Islam is, those who want peace and does who seek violence.

Abderrahmane Sissako:
One of the things I wanted to show in making this film is that the first victim of the jihadists is Islam itself. Islam never tells people to go out and
kill other people. However, this is something that has happened in history and with all religions, every religion has had people going out and killing in
the name of it. But that’s not what religion is. I also wanted to show this other face of Islam, the kind of Islam that was practice there, which was very
open and very tolerant. Having been brought up in it myself I think that my own tolerance and my own openness is due to that. What the imam in the film
says, that’s my vision of what Islam is.

Aguilar: Do you think that by prohibiting all forms of entertainment or enjoyment they want to vanish any individuality or to induce a state of
perpetual fear?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
I wanted to show exactly what you are saying, that they do everything under their image of what Islam is. In their way of thinking everything is forbidden,
is haram. Music is not allowed, soccer is not allowed, cinema is no allowed, and television is also not allowed. Everything is haram.
According to them, the only thing you are supposed to do is to go listen to the preachers preach. None of this is part of what Islam is, and it’s really
taken to the point of absurdity. Here is a place where they’ll say, “You stole something, we’ll cut off your hand,” and they don’t just threaten to do
that. They actually do it.

Aguilar: Music seems to be a very important element in your characters’ lives. It’s almost used as a way to rebel against the absurd tyrannical rule of
these extremists.

Abderrahmane Sissako:
Music is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It’s universal. Some of the music that nourished me were songs that people would sing in English,
and I had no idea what they would sing about. But they were important for me because I felt them. Music is human vibration. It makes humans vibrate and
takes them someplace else. Somebody who prohibits that definitely has a problem. Somebody who looks at a woman and says, “She needs to be completely
covered, you can’t even look at her eyes,” is somebody that has a problem. They want women to be covered; yet they ask men to roll their pants up so that
they are exposed. Is as if they are trying to discover themselves by covering up the women.

Aguilar: The jihadists, the villains, have doubts about their “mission” and they also other common interests. Was it important for you to humanize
them? Are they victims of the circumstances as well?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
They are not 100% sure of that they are doing because they are human. They all had a life before, and whatever it is that brought them to this point and to
become part of this group, might be very different from what compels other people to join.
Humanizing them doesn’t mean accepting what they are doing. It’s not a question of “Do I humanize them or not.” They are human beings already. They are
interested in soccer, and are interested in different soccer teams like Barcelona as well as other things. When they talk about these things they revert
back to being whom they really are. Maybe that is not how it actually is, maybe that’s my invention, but I think this is a way of showing they still have a
certain human quality within them.

Aguilar: With everything that is happening around the world regarding Islamist extremism, do you think your film is more important now than ever?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
All I can say is that it’s true that because of the events happening right now many more people will take notice of the film.

Aguilar: Was you cast conformed of mostly non-professional actors, or did you use people with different levels of experience? Is there a difference in
the way you work with each type of cast member?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
They were several professional actors in the cast. The fish seller, she is young, but she is a professional actress. Abel Jafri, the jihadist who is after the married woman, he is an actor. He lives
in Paris. The jihadist who dances, he is also an actor. For the most part the rest of the cast were not professional actors, but they were people who were
really into what I was doing. They wanted to become part of the adventure the film was. For me, when you direct actors, a large part of it is coming to an
agreement with them, reaching a mutual understanding. It’s something that’s based on trust. The chief jihadist who does the interrogation, he is a
professional actor from Mauritania, but he rarely has an opportunity to act in films because they aren’t any. The last time he was able to act in a film
was in 2001, and that was in another one of my films.

Aguilar: Another interesting aspect in the film is the use of technology. Cell phone and cameras are used as tools by the extremists to promote their

Abderrahmane Sissako:
Of course, technology is very important now. It’s there, its available. It’s there to be use however you see fit. You can use it and the jihadist can use
it. In their case they have been very effective at making use of technology, particularly with websites. It’s primarily through these websites that they do
their recruiting. But it’s not technology that makes them that way.

Aguilar: Even in the midst of all the terrible things happening to the characters, your film captures a side of Africa’s beauty we rarely get to see.

Abderrahmane Sissako:
The beauty is there. I just filmed it. Whether I’m filming it or not the beauty is always there.

Aguilar: The scene in which a group of kids play “imaginary soccer,” without a ball, is particularly powerful. What was your intention?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
First of all, it was there to show how absurd the prohibition of playing soccer was. I wanted to show that these people could never win by prohibiting
things like these. I think that people don’t necessary fight with or aren’t necessarily beaten by weapons, but it’ through their minds and what they think
they can do.

Aguilar: With the international success that “Timbuktu” has had, would you ever consider making a film outside of Africa?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
Being an African filmmaker, Africa is what’s important for me. If I were to shot a film in France or elsewhere it would only be because the story that was
being told was something that concerned me, and that really called me or needed to be shown on the screen. But France has hundreds and hundreds of
filmmakers. Therefore, doing it for the sake of making a film is not what I’m interested in. I’m the only Mauritanian filmmaker so it wouldn’t make sense
to make a film in France. I could shoot outside of my own country if the story was something that called for it. Africa really has to be the reason for me
to make a new film.

Aguilar: Are you surprised at how the film has reached people from across the globe?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
Everything I did in the film I did with a specific purpose, but I didn’t have the certainly that what I was doing was going to reach people or to affect
them. The fact that it has is really a plus for me.

Aguilar: Are excited to know that your film is the first one ever to represent Mauritania at the Academy Awards?

Abderrahmane Sissako:
I’m thrilled and hope we at least make it to the shortlist because I have the entire country, without exception, behind me. Actually, not only an entire
country, an entire continent.

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