Interview with ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO
We must go on looking for that humanity, because if we don’t show it, we lose a part of our own humanity.
An extract from the Timbuktu press pack c/o ©Le Pacte-2014 with thanks to l’Association Française des Cinémas d’Art et d’Essai.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
Looking back at the motivations for embarking on a film project can be deceptive. It doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of the matter. The desire to make films, to grapple with a subject matter is a much more complex thing, that can come from a place buried deep inside. Why at moment x, should someone decide to tell this or that story? Above all, there is a purpose to the mission. If you’re as lucky as I am, in a position where I can make films, and am able to share my perspective on the world, you are not going to waste that opportunity. You are careful about the stories you tell and the choices you make in terms of subject matter. The choices you make say a lot about your position. What’s the point in telling a story that someone else can tell that story? I only want to tell the stories that only I am “destined” to tell. I love to watch films that I wouldn’t be able to make. I appreciate different themes from those that I want to deal with in my work. I can be moved by a love story set in an apartment; yet I belong to those filmmakers from afar, from countries where there aren’t resources in place for films to be made easily. These countries can go for ten years without one single film being produced! When I manage to make a film, it has to mean something. It has to have a universal impact, raise awareness and touch the whole of humankind. I want to tell stories that we don’t tell often enough. There’s a trigger element, which then creates the momentum for the drama to unfold…
And what was the trigger for Timbuktu?
The stoning to death of a man and a woman in Aguelhok, a small town in Mali in 2002; they loved each other and had children together. Their crime was to not have been married in the presence of god. Their execution was posted online and this unspeakable atrocity took place without the media or the world noticing. This couple whose names we don’t even know became a symbol. There is little interest in a tragedy that happens so far away, but to not pay attention would be to ignore that the earth is round; what happens far away isn’t that far from home. People say: it’s a scandal, why aren’t people talking about this but they don’t know what to do about it. I am one of those people that complains that no one is exposing such horrors but I’m also an artist, a filmmaker and my role is to be a conduit for some of that collective conscience of rebellion; all the more so when it comes to what I know best, Africa; the continent that suffers from indifference; whose countries are victims that others call “underdeveloped.”
Timbuktu is a symbolic city, and the trials it’s had to endure through the Jihadist occupation are also symbolic …
I had shot a Western sequence with Danny Glover in Bamako; this sequence was shot in Timbuktu, back then, an exceptional place full of tolerance and exchange. We filmed right in front of the mosque, shooting blanks, and nobody was offended. Every now and again, we stopped to let people cross the square and go in to pray. Our artistic activities bothered noone. That was the real Islam. This is why the occupation of Timbuktu by foreigners was so symbolic. Gao was going through the same ordeal, but Timbuktu had become mythology. If Timbuktu is affected, everyone is affected. The city’s occupation in 2012 lasted a year. One year during which the whole population was taken hostage. One year during which the media focussed primarily on the western hostages kidnapped in that part of the world.
And it was during that occupation that you as a filmmaker reacted?
This film was conceived during not after the occupation, at the time of the French military intervention. I sent a kind of mole to investigate, to do some interviews including some with Jidahists. It was then that the touareg whose story I went on to tell was executed on the square. The stoning of the couple, the original trigger for the film, was partially eclipsed by the execution of this man. In any case, such executions affect the whole fabric of our lives and loves. Whether you’re touareg, berber or Fulani, you live in poverty and try to find some harmony in your life. Then suddenly these terrorists arrive, swallowing up and destroying everything that was! What this Tuareg family go through is what all other tribes have experienced. Within moments, all that you have spent your life building collapses. You must flee – but how and where?
In Timbuktu, Kidane, the Tuareg herder is a victim of the jihadists. At the time, we were told Tuaregs were Jihadist allies.
There are Tuaregs amongst the jihadists but within Jihad, you’ll find Tuaregs rubbing shoulders with Songhais and Bambaras; as well as Europeans; some French, and many Spaniards left behind. What unites them is despair. They are penniless, no longer know what to do. They’re are at the mercy of anything that goes towards some kind of notion of solidarity. Young people sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks to give their lives to Islam and help their families. Their gesture may seem like a self-sacrifice. Actually in their desperation, they have been led astray. They have allowed themselves to be persuaded that that they will be hailed as a hero, as someone who died bravely, whose gesture makes up for his (or her) inability to help his (or her) people.
The story of Kidane, the cattle herder and the fisherman is reminiscent of that of a western. There is also a beautiful wide shot, after the altercation between the two men worthy of Anthony Mann!
My love of cinema comes from the western. I’ve always liked that search for justice. The cinema that I love talks about what comes out of society. In this case, what determines the fate of a man: a cow that catches its legs in a fishing net, a misfired shot…
Kidane leaves the field on the left side of the screen whilst the fisherman dies on the right handside…
We had to go very fast to film this scene. We went really high up to get a view of the landscape before sunset. It was all shot in one day! That’s what interests me in cinema: the fragile nature of what we capture, what we owe to chance, the magic of the moment, the unforeseeable. A Mauritian audience member who wasn’t in any way a cinephile, told me the fisherman died like a fish would. She understood everything without any explanation. This is what is so exhilarating in fiction, when simple images speak for themselves…
Had you chosen fiction from the outset?
I got the project off the ground as a documentary. It is more reassuring for producers; it costs a lot less. But I knew that ultimately I would not go for this option. A documentary would have been impossible to make: there wasn’t free speech in Timbuktu. The investigator I hired could gain access because he was Mauritanian, which was under jihadist rule. The Jihadists actually wanted to be interviewed and I was afraid of being misled. I was worried about how their discourse would be interpreted and I did not want to be the messenger. I wanted to remain free. Already at this stage in the project, I was wondering how to show the stoning of the couple. I had even considered animation so I could avoid having to film that scene and to create some distance.
Where was the film shot?
When Timbuktu was liberated by French troops, I went there. I wanted to go over my script by meeting people. I was advised for example to go and see a fish monger, who despite being forced to wear the veil, had dared challenge the jihadists as it had been such a surprise to everyone that she had been left alone. This is the kind of character that you can’t imagine when you are writing your screenplay in Paris. I also saw that girls that we refer to as “forced into marriage” are girls that are raped; just like the Nigerian school girls abducted by Boko Haram. One, aged 19, dared to tell me that every night, she saw four men arrive, whose face she could not see.
All these testimonies fed my imagination, and made me want to keep things simple and modest; to not go over the top. What good would it do to add to this? The reality is already so unbearable!
Besides, the people that I met were saying little about themselves, they wanted to move on. I had intended to shoot the film there and then. Unfortunately, there has been a suicide attack involving the military. Three guys in a 4×4 went for a bite to eat at a restaurant on the square before blowing themselves up. They killed passers-by who probably were going through similar life challenges to them. It was no longer safe to bring a team to Timbuktu so I decided to move some of the shoot to Mauritania, trying to find a similar looking city such as Oualata. The main difficulty was how to bring over the various ethnic groups that were in Timbuktu such as Songhais, Tuaregs, Bambaras and Fulani… We were out of our confort zone, feeling uncertain and vulnerable. We shot six weeks in very tensed circumstances. Our location remained dangerous. Some of my technical team were French. We were under the protection of the Mauritanian army with a lot of state support. I kept on being assured nobody would get kidnapped and that the situation was under control, but I knew that we were not immune to a suicide bomber.
How did you select your actors?
Most are amateurs, and it wasn’t easy. For example, the day I shot the judgment scene of Kidane, my assistant introduced me to the man set to play the judge, and I quickly realized that he wasn’t going to do the trick. I then told a floor manager that he would have to play the judge. He had no time to think about the role and had to get straight into costume… He revealed himself to be an incredible presence! For Kidane, the Touareg, I could not find a trained actor with a background in theatre: there isn’t such a thing. I found a picture of a musician based in Madrid, with whom I just had a phone interview. When he got there, I just trusted him. I didn’t even do a test screening and he turned out to be fantastic. Therein lies both the fragility and the miracle of cinema. When we shot the scenes of the death of the fisherman, we were about 20 kilometers away from Kifa, near the only stretch of water we could find. The fisherman had to speak Songhai or Bozo, a language in which he could communicate with the Tuareg herder. In Timbuktu, people speak at least three languages! Incidentally, that is why I show that the jihadists go out with interpreters. My assistant showed me a photo of the fisherman who was chosen for the role: I wasn’t at all happy with him. This character was going to die. We only get to see him on screen very briefly. For me it was essential for his character to exude something special. For one reason or another, we have to like him; he needs charisma. This wasn’t the case with the man that had been picked so I started thinking about improvising, maybe even shooting the death of the fisherman without a fisherman at all. The scene was all set. And there, amongst the boatmen, I saw a man … He came from Timbuktu. He told me that he has fled Jihadists; he spoke Songhai, Bambara, Tamashek (the language Tuareg). Fishing is his passion. He understood everything about me and was prepared to do everything I had asked of him! Another miracle; he was perfect! In cinema, the filmmaker is only a conduit. His (or her) work is lonely, but benefits from a collective unconsciousness. It is that magic that fascinates me – providing it remains a one off and does not become set in stone!
How did you find Layla, the daughter of the Touareg?
This demonstrates what I have just talked about. In my scenario, I wrote: “Satima lives with her husband and their daughter Toya, aged 3 years old.” I arrive in Mbera, a Malian refugee camp in Mauritania with 70,000 people to choose my Touareg extras from. I have already chosen the one that plays Satima. It is Toulou Kiki, a singer who lives in Montreuil. But I’m still looking for the three year old girl, which will be accompanied by her real mother on the set. Whenever I entered a tent, a young girl seemed to manage to catch my eye: she was twelve, not what I had planned for the film but she followed me everywhere. I took a picture of a mother with her daughter and again, she manages to get in the shot. As I left the camp, she came up to my car to say goodbye. My assistant said: “Abderrahmane, this girl must be in the film! “ I looked at the eyes of this child. She smiled at me, I smiled back and went off. Later, I called my contact in the Touareg camp and told him to contact the family of Layla Mohamed Walet: Toya will not three, she will be twelve years old!
Did you use professional actors too?
There Abel Jafri, jihadist who can’t drive; Hichem Yacoubi, the dancing Jihadist; Zikra Oualet Moussa, the fish monger; and Kettly Noël, a Haitian choreographer who has lived in Bamako for over 15 years, where she started a dance school. Zabou, the character she plays really exists: she lives in Gao and is a former dancer from Crazy Horse back in the 60s. She went crazy and started to dress like in the movie. She always has a cockerel on her shoulder and she speaks very good French. When the jihadists were in Gao, she was the only one who could walk around with her head uncovered, the only one who could sing, dance, smoke, and tell them they were “assholes.” In other words, all that is forbidden is allowed when someone goes crazy. She is the embodiment of women who have borne the struggle; of those who have dared to resist.
When she blocks the way of the jihadists, arms crossed, that’s Tiananmen
Absolutely! I was also referencing Haiti, that other disaster: the reality is that this woman has settled in Timbuktu, far from her island many years before the earthquake; and now, by a strange and tragic twist of fate, she finds herself in another earthquake! It’s also a film about the chaos that individuals have to endure and that forces them to move on.
In all societies, women are stronger than men. This is more obvious in situations of crisis. It is them that hold everything together.
The woman is able to sing along to beatings. The fish monger wears the veil that was imposed on her but stands up for herself. Men tend to just drop their pants.
Sentenced to death, Kidane accepts his fate, but is worried about the fate of his daughter …
The little girl embodies extreme fragility. She is just like the gazelle that we see running at the beginning; she is beauty, harmony that is harmed andtraumatized. Faced with death, Kidane must protect and save her. I show that he also cares about his wife but his daughter is the future. I am convinced that Hervé Gourdel who was beheaded in September in Algeria, did not cry, did not scream, no… I’m sure that his thoughts turned to intimate things, to those that meant everything to him like his wife and his children… The film insists on this essential point:
No act of violence can kill love. You can kill a man, but you cannot kill the love he has for his daughter and his wife.
This is fundamental, and this is the key to victory against barbarism. That’s the way to stand up to extremism! They will not have the last word. Beauty and dignity will triumph.
The film is striking in its formal beauty, its poetry, its gentleness, its metaphors and serenity. In your eyes, were the metaphysical concepts necessary? Does the cinematic ambition of your film enhance its message?
I think so. I believe we must maintain some harmony when are dealing with horror, and that it’s vital to engaging audiences. The spectacle is important. It invites them in, it allows them to invent the film with us.
The stoning sequence is a lesson in the moral dimension of the gaze. A parallel story shifts our attention to a jihadist who starts dancing, like a member of the Maurice Béjart ballet.
I should start by telling you that this actor is a dancer. I would not have shot that scene if it had not been for that. For me, that’s the essence of writing for cinema: take in what others can offer you. Why did I go with this dance sequence? Because it exudes harmony. How could I show a stone that hits a woman’s head and kills her without any breathing space? On the one hand, that dance scene allowed me to create enough distance to confront this terrible scene; on the other, it shows that the jihadist is like us, that in every person there is the good and evil. If this jihadist chooses to dance, it is perhaps because he wants to get up, he knows that something isn’t right. At the start of the scene, he removes his belt and drops his weapon, before he starts dancing. I wanted to show there is a human side that exists in any barbarian. We must go on looking for that humanity, because if we don’t show it, we lose a part of our own humanity.
You present these jihadists like ridiculous beings, with broken arms, like failures and hypocrites, who smoke in secret and just can’t resist impulses ..
I ALSO show that they can be very courteous: they return their European hostage’s glasses and his drugs and even offer him tea. Straight after that, they might well behead him but I didn’t want to show them shouting and screaming. I also wanted to show that they can stone and kill a couple and hurt a girl for singing. But as in any group, it was important to show all types of individuals – the wicked, the intellectual, the rapper. I’m very attached to the rapper character, this young brainwashed man who thinks that when he was making music, he was sinning. We have since found out that the killer of American hostage James Foley really was a former rapper from London.
No smoking, no playing with balls, no music. All women to wear gloves … You turn their rules into ridicule. Is humour a weapon?
Humour is a way of maintaining a dialogue, because a film is a conversation; it must be fluid, and anything that can help the viewer is a good thing.
You shoot a fantastic scene of football without any ball. Is that meant as a sign that imagination is stronger than all that’s forbidden?
Of course, Imagination is the last weapon that people who have lost all their bearings. This is what keeps them alive because nobody can do anything about it; it’s the ultimate hope. When I first thought about this scene, I visualised in in exactly the same way as it has turned out in the film. It then took another even more poignant dimension for me, thanks to the work of the composer. That scene demonstrates the power of music in cinema, with the “click” everytime the imaginary ball gets hit.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility to represent your continent, its voice and its image?
Yes, I had the feeling that a whole continent behind this film. It made sense, for the continent and for the world. When an African film is in a big festival such as Cannes dealing with such a topic, the whole of Africa is supportive! I felt this support everywhere. The many messages I’ve received are the proof. The possibility for Africa to compete for the Palme D’or was so unlikely… It was of course a lot on my shoulders to have to carry the hopes of not just a country but a whole continent.
How did you get through not picking up the Palme d’or despite being a favourite?
I am a human being, so at the time, I was disappointed. I thought about everyone that had put their hopes into Timbuktu, whether they’re from Africa or elsewhere. And it was what helped me move on to something else. Cannes is the biggest cinema festival in the world and the most important one. To be selected for the official Cannes competition is a form of consecration in itself and the most important meeting for a film isn’t victory over others. It isn’t the competition, it is meeting with audiences. That’s who the film belongs to.