When you meet Abderrahmane Sissako in person, there’s no mistaking where the films he makes come from. Soft-spoken but firm, gentle yet engaged and insistent, he exudes the qualities that have made him one of cinema’s great humanists, conveying the difficult and ongoing evolution of his native Africa with deceptively simple stories that display a sensitivity to human nature that make them inviting to the world over while usually heartbreaking as well. A most intuitive chronicler of grave injustices, it can be considered one that Sissako will often take long breaks between films, last making a handful of shorts between 2008 to 2010, with his last feature, “Bamako,” which took the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to task for the devastating economic policies it imposed on the continent as reflected through the residents of a small community in Mali, released in 2007.
So the release of “Timbuktu,” recently receiving a nomination for a Best Foreign-Language Oscar, is no small event, nor does it feel as if Sissako has lost any of the urgency that made his previous work so vital. Dealing with the real-life 2012 conflict in Northern Mali that resulted in the region’s three biggest cities being overrun by Jihadists who declared Sharia law, “Timbuktu” shows the disquieting effect of terrorism in the titular city where the captors walk through the streets announcing women must wear socks and gloves, music is forbidden and soccer is off limits. Sissako is able to show the richness of the community that lives there even though it’s suddenly been oppressed, yet his camera drifts to a camp outside the city near the river where a cattle herder named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) resides in peace with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and his 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) live in relative peace. Still, they can’t resist the reach of the Jihadists forever and when an incident involving Kidane’s prized calf wandering off his land leads to a dangerous confrontation, tragedy ensues.
Although there is great sadness in “Timbuktu,” there is also palpable sense of anger passionately channeled by the filmmaker into something both constructive and moving. With extraordinary cinematography from “Blue is the Warmest Color”’s Sofia El Fani, the vastness and grandeur of the physical landscape is at odds with the small-mindedness of the Jihadists, who are shown to be fighting within themselves to reconcile the actions dictated by their misguided beliefs with basic human decency. Last fall before the film played at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, Sissako traveled from his home in Paris to talk about the inspiration for the film, trying new things such as having a composer for the first time and why he gravitates towards stories about women.
How did this come about?
I read a very, very small [newspaper] article in July 2012 about this couple that had been stoned to death in Northern Mali. I learned in the article that an image of that couple could be seen on the Internet and it really shocked me to know that this couple had died because they had done nothing. They had just loved each other. And it’s really appalling to know that overall, people are very indifferent to such atrocity. The act of stoning is one of the most barbaric acts one could do. The role of a filmmaker is to tell the stories of the world around us, so that’s what I wanted to do.
Did this personally affect you since you grew up in Mali?
Yes, it probably had something to do with it because I lived in Mali and I shot one of my previous films there. But truly, initially, it was that human drama that shocked me and I wanted to tell the story.
You’ve said you met the inspiration for the Imam character in “Timbuktu” on the set of your last film “Bamako.” It’s a small part in this film – he simply tells the Jihadists that they can’t come into his mosque with weapons – but did he help inspire the story as a whole?
It’s true I had met such an Imam when I was shooting “Bamako” and this Imam character really represents everything that a pious, religious man would be. Honesty and integrity. So the entire [idea] of this Imam facing these extremists, the Jihadists coming from elsewhere [who have come to] take the city hostage – for me, it was really important to show that opposition.
Was it difficult to find a location where all these pieces could fit together?
Yes, very difficult because in Timbuktu, it was very insecure and unsafe, so we had to shoot elsewhere in Mauritania. We had very little time at the last minute to look for the right shooting locations and also we had to be near the river, so it was strategically complicated. We found water in that lake [you see in the film] and we started shooting there, but as we were shooting, there was no more water in the lake, so we then had to go elsewhere and do a one-day trip to go to the shooting location. It was very difficult because from one town to another, it’s not a real road. It’s dirt. So in our countries, shooting a movie is a very tricky, challenging thing to do.
Of course, you’re depicting horrific events, but it takes place in an area of great natural beauty. Was it important for you to capture that dichotomy?
Not really because whether or not I’m here, I’m there, the landscape is beautiful and people are like that. Really what I wanted to do is convey a sense of peace and calm and harmony within a family. And this family was living with very little. I wanted to depict that beauty.
Had you been to Mali yourself since the military coup?
When I came back, the city had been freed, so people had returned to regular life. But we’re still very traumatized by that occupation that had occurred. I met young women who had been forced into marriage, [which is] a very subtle way to call it. In reality, they were raped. And I met such people.
The women in “Timbuktu” all seem to have very distinct personalities from one another. Did you want them to reflect different things about what you had seen?
I always think that women in general, unlike men, really stand out through the strength that they have always. There’s something very beautiful and courageous in women’s resistance. Like the woman [in “Timbuktu”] selling fish and showing her hands and arms [to the Jihadists], saying “If you want to cut my hands and arms, do it.” And the [male] characters in the movie… [for instance] at the beginning, [a man -s] being asked to wear socks and make his pants shorter and instead [of protesting] he just removes his pants and he’s not trying to fight. He’s just complying with the law. When I tell stories about anonymous people, I really like to tell the stories of women and their courage.
Like “Bamako,” music is a way of showing freedom. How did that connection come about for you?
Music is a very, very important element of storytelling, especially in “Timbuktu” when I wanted to convey that idea of music being forbidden. I thought it was very important for me to find the right music, and that’s the reason why for the first time I actually worked with a composer. We really worked together. In particular, [for] the soccer scene, we really tried to create an almost-choreographed scene, like a dance scene.
There’s one scene where a group of friends clandestinely meet and a woman sings, which is illegal. The words weren’t translated in the version that I saw, but I wondered what was she singing about?
I didn’t want the subtitles because I just wanted it to be a melody that was forbidden. But what she’s describing in the song is the suffering of people at that time.
There’s a famous American movie saying, “Don’t work with children or animals,” but you managed to get great performances from both. Is there something you have do as a director to achieve that?
It was my second time working with children on this film and with children, you really have to love them and show them that you respect them. Once you’ve done that, they give you everything.
The calf’s name is quite unusual – GPS. How did that nickname come about? [SPOILERS AHEAD]
That was my idea. In Africa, we frequently use nicknames. They’re like childhood friends that we call like Carter or Dick Cheney. And calling that calf GPS was a way to show that the world is connected and that we’re all connected. The fact that [these characters are] looking for a network and they have phones is to show it’s not a completely wild place. That world is connected. So when GPS dies, those structures and those references are gone too.
For you, what has it been like to take this film around the world?
Extraordinary. [Seeing] a lot of audience members showing a lot of emotion and being very moved really gives me the sense that the world is capable of solidarity and showing great empathy and compassion.
“Timbuktu” is now open in New York at Film Forum and will open in Los Angeles at the Royal on January 30th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.