‘Islam Has Been Held Hostage,’ Says ‘Timbuktu’ Helmer Abderrahmane Sissako

Timbuktu Cannes 2014

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.


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  1. Guest says:

    How are fundamentalist Muslims extremists or radicals? They simply practice what is in the Islamic books as correctly as they can. They know that the later (or ‘better’) verses abrogate the earlier, peaceful ones, making Islam a violent ideology that’s all about dominating everyone. The 3 books, the Hadith, Sira, and Quran contain the instructions for Islamic terrorism, so as long as these books are accepted, there will be Islamic terrorism. Everyone needs to wake up to these facts so that we have a chance at reducing all the violence that’s going on.

  2. Tracy says:

    I can turn to almost any page in the koran and find a surah telling believers to kill the unbelievers. Take a look for yourself.

    The bible also has verses talking about killing, but there is a purpose for this and it does not continue into the NT. The OT shows us what happens when we try to earn our own way to heaven and the animal sacrifices point to the ultimate sacrifice of the coming messiah. The NT reveals the messiah, Jesus. He is the savior who came to save us from our sins, but we need to accept His help. Jesus wants all to be saved. So, the OT is there to show us the law, which in turn reveals our sinful nature and need for a savior. The NT reveals the savior and his love for all humanity, His life is the perfect sacrifice and payment for the sins of the world. This is His gift to us, but we have to open the gift, otherwise, we are back, under the law, paying the price for our sin, which is our death (total separation from the Creator).

  3. Pray Hard says:


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