Cannes: African Filmmakers Enjoy Rare Spotlight

'Timbuktu,' Abderrahmane Sissako (Competition)

The sole representative of African cinema in competition this year, the fifth solo directing effort from the Mauritania-born, Mali-raised Sissako was inspired by the real-life story of the 2012 stoning in Northern Mali of a young unmarried couple by Islamists in front of hundreds of onlookers. Sissako is one of the filmmakers from sub-Saharan Africa to enjoy international recognition, and he's been a Cannes regular. Both Bamako (2007) and Waiting for Happiness (2002) screened on the Croisette, the latter winning the Fipresci critics honor for titles screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. (Sales: Le Pacte)

With movies from the continent often not making it to major film festivals, Abderrahmane Sissako, whose "Timbuktu" is in the competition lineup, says African states must do more for the film industry.

Filmmakers from Africa have had a presence in Cannes this year, with one competition, one Un Certain Regard title and a couple of jury spots, that's rare at major festivals.

A year after Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche won the Palme d'Or for Blue Is the Warmest Color, Mauritanian-born, Mali-raised filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu is competing for the Palme d'Or. And Ivory Coast native Philippe Lacote brought his feature film debut, Run, to the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

In addition, Chad’s Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a director who has lived in France since 1982, was part of the Cinefondation and Short Films jury. His feature A Screaming Man won the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes festival, making Haroun the first director from Chad to enter and win an honor in the competition. Last year, his Grigris was also in the competition.

PHOTOS: The Complete Cannes 2014 Official Selection

Moussa Toure, A director, scriptwriter and producer (Toubab Bi, La Pirogue) from Senegal, sat on the Un Certain Regard jury. In addition, the Cannes short film lineup included A Shot at the Big Time from South African filmmaker Janet van Eeden.

It may not be a huge presence, but filmmakers from the continent are happy about the exposure.
"Cannes is a showcase for excellence," Sissako told THR. "And when the spotlight is placed on me or Philippe Lacote here, it extends far beyond us…. It is important as far as Africa having a presence and having visibility and A place in the festival. Africa is very rarely visible on the world scene.”

Haroun said last year that African cinema "needs" Cannes to fight its "invisibility" abroad.
Cannes festival organizers say their goal has long been to showcase global cinema, including from Africa. "African cinema will be very present at Cannes," festival director Thierry Fremaux said when he announced this year's lineup. "It's important to us that the Cannes selection be a journey in cinema throughout the world."

France has long had a special relationship with parts of Africa, given its former colonial past and continued aid and cultural ties.

"Cannes is a very important festival, and it is near to francophone Africa," Toure told THR. "It is easier with the visa and the language." Toure also argued that showcasing films from Africa helps bring African stories and issues to the world. "If you see a film from Abderrahmane Sissako, you see the insight of Africa," he explained, saying that some of the violence and issues depicted in African films can be foreign and scary to people from other parts of the world.

The lack of presence of African filmmakers at major festivals outside of Cannes may explain why Fremaux was particularly apologetic when he initially forgot about Sissako's film in announcing the competition titles this year.

PHOTOS: 9 Actresses Poised to Break Out at the Cannes 2014 Festival

"I forgot a film," he said during the press conference. "In fact, this way we can spotlight this film…. I am very sorry to Abderrahmane Sissako [and his producer]. So, this film is totally, absolutely part of the selection…in fact, this film is getting a little bit of an advantage, because it is being pointed out specifically."

Sissako previously had brought to Cannes his drama Waiting for Happiness in the Un Certain Regard section in 2002, where it won an honor from international critics association Fipresci, and drama Bamako as an out-of-competition entry in 2006.

Timbuktu, his fifth solo directorial project, is his first in the Cannes competition lineup. The film is about the 2012 stoning of a young unmarried Mali couple by Islamic fundamentalists for the crime of "not being married before God."

Since the inception of the Cannes festival, only a few African directors have won the top award. In 1975, Algeria's Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina was honored with the Palme d’Or for Chronicle of the Years of Fire, followed by Kechiche, whose film was considered French, last year. A couple of others have also won Cannes honors. In 1987, Mali's Souleymane Cisse won the Jury Prize for Brightness, and Haroun's A Screaming Man won it in 2010. In 1999, director Idrissa Ouedraogo from Burkina Faso won the Grand Prize of the Jury for The Law.

Sissako said that he and his peers often see themselves as filmmakers from specific African countries, or, alternatively, as global storytellers rather than African directors. But they say the lack of African filmmakers at many festivals automatically makes them representatives of the continent. "Yes, I am African, but before African, I am Senegalese," Toure told THR. "I am an African mix. In Senegal, we have different ethnicities. In other African countries, they have many more." But he said that as a jury member, he automatically gets to represent the larger continent. 

Sissako said the lack of a bigger African presence at other major film festivals is not necessarily the fault of selectors. African countries must do more to support their own film industries, he argued. "Cinema is something that can only be developed from within," he told THR. "For African cinema to be visible, it is important that African states place a priority on developing cultural policy." 

Haroun financed Gigris with funding support from France and Chad, where the government has been supporting film in recent years.

He also argued last year that it is mostly up to filmmakers themselves to make it onto the world stage. "We have to work hard, try to listen to the world and ask ourselves, are we talking about subjects which interest everyone?" he said. "Cinema is business. As soon as there is an excellent film, which can bring money to people, they will take it."