MARRAKECH — While at the Marrakech film fest to participate in the Cinecoles jury, Abderrahmane Sissako sat down with Variety to discuss his latest film, “Timbuktu,” Mauritania’s first ever foreign-language Oscar candidate. A politically engaged drama depicting the barbarian occupation of Islamic fundamentalists in Mali, “Timbuktu” grossed over €109,000 ($135,000) on opening day in France — an impressive score for a world-cinema title. The movie, which world premiered in competition at Cannes, was produced by Sylvie Pialat’s Les Films du Worso and has been sold by Le Pacte in more than 50 countries. “Timbuktu” screened this week at Marrakech and will be released by Cohen Media Group in the U.S.
What prompted you to make a film about the occupation of Islamic fundamentalists in Mali?
I had it in me for a long time and one event triggered it. When I heard about the stoning of a woman, it deeply revolted me, and I felt the urge to make this film. It’s so absurd that barbarian acts like this one are still happening today. We can’t just turn a blind eye and do nothing about it.
How did you prepare the film? Are the characters and situations all inspired by real people and stories?
For the most part yes. I traveled there and met a lot people. That’s the only way to make an authentic film; and when you tackle a subject like this one it’s a necessity. I met the Imam whose character has such a pivotal role in the movie. The woman who defies the fundamentalists by refusing to wear gloves also exists; she’s become an urban legend.
Your film is very critical toward Islamists, but at the same time you didn’t demonize the characters in portraying them in the movie. Why did you take that approach?
My goal was not to show these people in a positive light, but rather show that they are not so far from us. They have taken the wrong path for 1,000 different reasons. But at one point in their lives they were certainly good people, or at least people we can relate to. Some even perhaps fell asleep listening to Bob Marley, and they’re the same ones saying today that listening to music is forbidden.
That past is still within them somewhere. We’re all capable of redemption. But the group think is so powerful that they get trapped into doing the wrong things. And yet, when they’re alone, they may feel guilt. In the film when one of our main characters witnesses the stoning of the couple, he’s not proud of himself. And it’s important to show that. If you don’t give them a part of humanity you lose some of it yourself.
Aren’t you fearful of reactions to your film from people from the Arab world?
“Timbuktu” shows that Islam has nothing to do with barbarism and jihadists. Islam has been held hostage. And that’s why the imam in the film tells the fundamentalists: When is God is all this? When is the compassion? Where is forgiveness? You’re traumatizing people, you’re arrogant. What you’re doing to our people has nothing to do with Islam.” In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, we made the choice to not say loud and clear that Islam had been taken hostage by a group of people, and instead we stigmatized Islam and claimed there was a clash of civilizations. But the world is such that some people go into extremes when faced with a conflict and that happens in any religion.
In what ways do you think “Timbuktu” is universal and resonates with contemporary events?
We always reach the universal when telling intimate stories. We talk about terrorism, occupation, but we seldom get interested in the personal stories of people who live through it. That woman who was forced to get married or that father who is devastated because he won’t be able to see his daughter’s face ever again. That’s universal.
The film is punctuated by poetic and surreal scenes. What purpose do these scenes serve in the narration?
Through the film I wanted to engage the spectator into a conversation, give him some perspective, food for thoughts. When showing abject violence, there is no need to exaggerate it because it banalizes it. The stoning scene lasts only a few seconds. While it’s crucial to show it, it’s also important to move on quickly in order to not banalize it. I thought long and hard about the way in which I should portray that scene and in the end I chose to punctuate it with shots of a jihadist dancing. He’s praying and purging his guilt through this dance.