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Meet the Director of Foreign Oscar Nominee ‘Timbuktu’

Meet the Director of Foreign Oscar Nominee 'Timbuktu'

He shows, using a cast of professional and non-professional actors, how decent people’s lives are dramatically upended by these dictatorial radical Islamists, who outlaw music and other forms of pleasure and force women to wear gloves, among other things.

He shows us a decent, loving family of cattle herders who live outside the town in bucolic harmony with nature and their neighbors. The man and woman are happy and content with their young daughter and their life. When the jihadists come, this harmony is tragically disrupted. The movie was entered in Competition at Cannes and played Toronto and New York; Cohen Media Group will release it stateside on January 25. Whatever its Oscar fate, don’t miss it. 

This marked the first time Mauritania has submitted a film for the Oscar. 
Anne Thompson: What is the Oscar conversation in Mauritania?
Abderrahmane Sissako: The nation waits for this, it’s an extraordinary thing for the people in Mauritania, you know it’s not just Mauritania but Africa, all the continent. Everyone is behind it. Senegal, Morocco, because the continent is visible in a positive way. They know Africa is a magnificent continent, even with problems, but the continent is unknown, no one talks about it. So each time something shines a positive light, that touches and is moving to people.
The jihad story you share is so unfortunate, resonant and an emerging reality in many places. How did you come to recognize the opportunity to tell this very specific story that might be relatable to the rest of the world. Did you see it that way?
Two things happened at once: the absurdity and violence of the acts that jihadists committed when they came into Timbuktu; and especially that couple that got stoned there in Timbuktu. So, right away, I wanted to tell that story. Just to say, in this day and age, that having this happen is completely abnormal. All the more abnormal should just be kept silenced and not mentioned. We stay silent when the victims seem different than us.
You go out of your way to make these two people come alive as very sympathetic. You were trying to draw us in and touch our hearts with these two beautiful people and their life together.
It was important for me to show a human drama, and a man who knows he’s going to die — whose daughter is left an orphan.
Tell me about how you found these actors. Were they professionals?
The couple are not professional actors — they’re musicians. The head of the jihad group in the movie, who goes and visits the wife when the man is gone, he’s a professional actor. There’s a choreographer. She’s Asian, and she lives in Mali. The character of the jihad, the guy who dances, he’s an actor in France.
You come from Mauritania, but this is set in Mali. The jihad takeover was brief. Did you go in after it was over, to shoot in Timbuktu?
I went to prepare the shoot in Timbuktu, after Timbuktu was freed, but some people blew themselves up there and killed a lot of people. It was dangerous for the crew to shoot there, and especially given the topic of the movie, criticizing jihadists, we were in danger. So I went back to Mauritania, and I found a city that looked like Timbuktu. Even in Mauritania, we were really highly protected by the military there, so that we could make the movie. Despite a sense of protection from the army, you can never prevent someone from blowing themselves up in the neighborhood.
How did you become such an accomplished filmmaker?
I decided, very early on, to have this profession. I was 14 years old, but I was not a cinephile, and I was not in love with cinema at the time, and I had seen very few films. My mother had a first son before me, from the previous marriage, and the father of that child left with the child. He was from Algeria, and, for 25 years, she never was able to see her son again. My brothers and sisters all grew up with the thought, the idea that that son was missing. Every day, my mother was talking about him. We grew up and he wasn’t there, and, once, she met him — she saw him in a car in Senegal. When she came back home, she told us she saw him and took pictures. She started telling me that he was studying cinema, and every day she was talking about it. That’s the reason why I think I decided to make movies for my mother.
Where did you study?
I went to Moscow when I was nineteen years old, and I studied there. My first short film, at the end of course studies, is called “The Game,” and was selected at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. It was successful, and bought by television networks. Because of that, I managed to make another one — “October.” I came back in ’93, with that, to Cannes.
Who did you get as financial backers on “Timbuktu”?
I hadn’t made a movie in seven years, but because I’m quite respected and established as a filmmaker, I wanted to make the movie and I got the backing fairly easily.

Has the film been shown in countries outside of Africa?
The movie was born very recently, so not yet. The movie’s coming out in France in December; it’s being released in Europe between December and January, in Germany. Movie distribution in Africa is almost non-existent. Tunisia has a distributor, and South Africa as well.

Has the film played in other African countries? 
It opened in Mauritania. The cinema is badly organized, there aren’t many theaters, But the public was very touched by the film, because they understand it. 

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