Oscars 2015 Foreign-Language Spotlight: Mauritania's 'Timbuktu'
Abderrahmane Sissako's Cannes 2014 competition entry is the African country's first-ever Oscar nominee.
In the wake of the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb, ordered a theater to stop screening Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu.
Although mayor Jacques-Alain Benisti hadn't seen the film, which looks at life in a village in northern Mali that has fallen under the brutal control of Islamic fundamentalists, he sounded an alarm that the movie could be viewed as "an apology for terrorism." The ban didn't stand, though. The film, which screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and is nominated for the foreign-language film Oscars, had played in theaters throughout France without incident, and it was scheduled to resume screening in Villiers-sur-Marne two weeks later.
The whole incident, says Sissako, "suggests the consequence of what jihadists want to do, to scare, because he was the only mayor in the 500 cities that showed the movie in France to decide not to show the film. He was a little scared, shocked, afraid. I understand this kind of reaction but cannot accept it, of course."
Sissako, 53, was born in Mauritania on the west coast of Africa and spent much of his youth in neighboring Mali before heading to Moscow, where he studied film, and then eventually settling in France. With films like 2002's Heremakono and 2006's Bamako, which show aspects of life in both Mauritania and Mali, he has become an internationally recognized filmmaker.
A Muslim, he watched the atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists around the world. In particular, he was haunted by a report of a man and a woman buried up to their necks and stoned to death for having children outside of marriage -- a punishment delivered by an Islamic group associated with Al-Qaeda that took over the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012. "It was just a few lines I read in a newspaper, and it shocked me," he recalls. "It is very terrible in our modern civilization today to know that it is possible to step back, and I decided to make that situation the focus of my movie. Having the opportunity to make movies puts me in a position to be the witness for my country. I cannot be silent if something like that happens in my country and my continent."
"It was very important for me to talk about the people in Timbuktu," says the director. "During the occupation of north Mali, the media talked only about the foreign person who was kidnapped, but they never talked about what happens in a small city -- the kind of humiliation they undergo but also their capacity to resist." That spirit is embodied by one woman, who walks through the town in colorful clothes in defiance of the jihadists' rules. "For me, she represents the spirit of the people," says Sissako. "Because of my optimism about humanity, it was very important for me to show this path to resistance."
Unveiled in Cannes, Timbuktu was enthusiastically received by critics and was recognized with two awards, including the Ecumenical Jury Prize. When it was submitted by Mauritania for Oscar consideration, it became the first film that the African country has ever entered for the Academy Awards competition.
Its nomination made headlines in Sissako's home country. "You cannot imagine what it means in my country," says Sissako. "My continent is happy to be here. We have very few opportunities in the media when they talk about Africa. It is such a beautiful continent. I represent Africa."
Submitting country Mauritania
Director Abderrahmane Sissako
Top award Ecumenical Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival