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Abderrahmane Sissako Talks Burdens & Benefits of Being Labeled an ‘African Filmmaker’

Abderrahmane Sissako Talks Burdens & Benefits of Being Labeled an 'African Filmmaker'

I like this quote by Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, in an interview with the New York Times, in anticipation of the release of his latest work, “Timbuktu,” which Cohen Media Group will open in theaters on January 28, 2015. 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, instead of recognizing that there are over 50 individual nations within the continent, 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, but he embraces the so-called “burden” that the broad, if incomplete categorization, insists he carry.

It reminds me of the “burden of representation” question brought up numerous times on this blog, but specifically where African American filmmakers are concerned.  

It also 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, and knowing were they were from, and not necessarily feeling like they had to “represent” as the saying goes, 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. 

You can read the full New York Times interview with Sissako here, and also learn about how the genesis of “Timbuktu.”

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