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Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’ Quietly Grosses Over $1 Million in USA Box Office – Rare for an African Film

Abderrahmane Sissako's 'Timbuktu' Quietly Grosses Over $1 Million in USA Box Office - Rare for an African Film

I felt it was worth mentioning, as I find out this morning, while researching something else entirely, that Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako’s critically-acclaimed, multiple award-winning “Timbuktu” has grossed over $1 million in domestic (USA) box office – $1,040,427 exactly, thus far.

That’s quite an impressive feat for a film that opened on just 4 screens, and earned just over $45,000 after its opening weekend, in late January (the 28th was its debut). It’s also not very often that a film by a black African filmmaker about black Africans is released in the USA theatrically, let alone one that is released, and goes on to gross over $1 million! So this is certainly noteworthy, which is why I mention here.

To put this into some context, in recent years, films like the DRC’s Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s “Viva Riva!” ($62,000), Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man” ($9,900), and we can even add the British/Nigerian co-production “Half of a Yellow Sun” ($55,000), all failed to cross (or even come close to) the $100,000 mark, which is still less than 10% of what “Timbuktu” has earned as of today. 

You’d probably have to go back to “Tsotsi,” the 2006 South African drama that earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, which grossed almost $3 million. Although, it was directed by a white South African filmmaker in Gavin Hood. There was also Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” which was certainly a blockbuster in the USA; but, again, as I specified above, my focus here is on black African filmmakers and films that tell stories centered around the lives of black characters, which eliminates that film entirely.

Even the late great Senegalese filmmaker, and probably one of continental Africa’s most recognized filmmakers internationally, Ousmane Sembene’s widest USA release, “Moolaade,” grossed just over $215,000.

For those who missed “Timbuktu’s” USA theatrical run (a run whose widest release was just 56 screens), the film will be out on home video in June. It may be available on VOD before then; but we’ll certainly let you know when we know more.

By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the film’s distributor, Cohen Media, who are responsible for its box office success.

What helped the film’s American appeal? To start, I’d say that the international acclaim it received, starting with its world premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was said to have received a lengthy standing ovation after it screened, gave it an initial lift. It would also clean up at the Cesar Awards earlier this year (the French equivalent of the Oscars), winning 7 of the 8 categories in which it was nominated, including key categories like Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. And it was a big winner at the 20th annual Lumières awards (the French equivalent of the Golden Globes), taking home trophies in the Best Film and Best Director categories.

The film was also nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. 

All of the above were “firsts” for director Sissako, and all likely helped fuel interest in the film, in addition to its very topical subject matter – a hard-hitting, unsensational anti-Jihadist film.

The Mauritanian filmmaker is, naturally, thinking about what his next film will be. And, according to an interview he gave to Screen International magazine during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event in early March (an initiative that provides mentorship, nurturing, and hands-on development for filmmakers from around the world), Sissako said he was considering 2 ideas: first, an adaptation of Lebanese author Amin Maalouf’s “Leo the African,” a historical novel based on the real-life of Hasan al-Wazzan, also known as Leo Africanus, a 15th century Moorish explorer, diplomat and author, best known for his book “Descrittione dell’Africa” (“Description of Africa”), which lays out the geography of North Africa; and second, a film that tackles the much-discussed/analyzed/debated and, I’d say, still evolving relationship between continental Africa and China. The filmmaker didn’t provide details beyond that broad description.

He said that he had yet to settle on either idea, although a decision on which project to take on next will be made by the end of this year, he added.

“Timbuktu is still travelling, it’s still alive but it’s going to calm down, in six months or so things should be clearer,” he said. “I have my rhythm.”

I’m certainly looking forward to whatever will come next…

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