A quote worth sharing by Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, in an interview he gave to the New York Times, in recognition of the release of his latest work, “Timbuktu.” When asked whether he carries any *burdens* as an “African Filmmaker,” Sissako replied with: “Well, that’s what we’re called, “African filmmaker,” in quotes, but is there such a thing? Think about it in terms of Europe. For example you could have a Belgian film nominated for an Oscar, and it will be called a Belgian film, not a European film. But if you have a Mauritanian film that is nominated for an Oscar, suddenly it becomes an African film. And I think that is because the rarity of it leads to this kind of naming. So it’s a burden, but also an opportunity, to represent a continent. Because if it’s a success, it’s a success shared by everyone, and that for me would be the greatest honor, to win for an entire continent.”
I like the way he essentially challenges the question, which echoes many-a criticism we’ve shared on this blog, that imagines continental Africa as a single country, while also recognizing his position as a filmmaker of African descent, from the continent, who acknowledges that his success, even if only in the eyes of *outsiders*, is one that is continental. In essence, he doesn’t run away from the broad classification, after all, he is of the continent, embracing the so-called “burden” that the incomplete categorization, insists he carry, but he certainly doesn’t speak for an entire continent of people.
It reminds me of the interview series I moderated with several Focus Features Africa First fellows, in 2012. I spoke to at least 5 young filmmakers from countries within the African continent, and asked each one whether they felt that, as “African filmmakers,” they had to carry some kind of a burden to represent the countries that they each represented, or even Africa as a whole, on the global film scene? And, in short, summarizing all their responses, they each recognized where they were from, knowing fully well where they are originally from, but not necessarily feeling like they had to “represent,” preferring rather to embrace their individuality. But, they also shared that there was no “burden” to carry around, because, in essence, they didn’t think of it as a burden. Who they are, and where they’re from, would reflect in their work.
This year, Sissako returns to the ongoing 68th Cannes Film Festival as President of the Cinéfondation and Short Films Jury. While at Cannes, he spoke with the festival, and, maybe not surprisingly, was asked essentially the same question about speaking for an entire continent (I’d guess he’s probably sick of the question), as well as whether he acts as a “bridge between Europe and Africa” via his art, and more. He also addresses the fact that he’s lived outside of Mauritania (and the African continent) for longer than he’s lived in his home country, and what the pros and cons of that are (I’d imagine it would influence one’s POV to an extent, and thus the art that they create), and more.