PRINT January 2015


the films of Abderrahmane Sissako

Abderrahmane Sissako, Timbuktu, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed).

TODAY, ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO is one of the most celebrated of Africa’s filmmakers, yet he remains something of an outlier. His cinema might best be thought of as free verse rather than narrative cinema, in which every shot is subjected to the teleological necessity of the story, for his images are composed with an uncommon freedom and the way in which they relate to one another and to the film as a whole is typically indeterminate, ambiguous, or suggestively metaphorical. Sissako’s recourse to a poetic language as his signature contribution to African cinema—generally considered a cinema of identitarian revendication, resistance, and political struggle—raises crucial questions with respect to image production in postcolonial Africa. First, what does it mean when Sissako’s critics argue—or at least imply—that the complex language of poetry has no place in African cinema, just as it was banned in Plato’s Republic? Second, is there any longer a space, in film spectatorship, for the work of directors such as Sissako, whose films abound in understatement, metaphor, and indeterminacy, at a time when viewers everywhere live under the hegemony of imperialistic images invariably harnessed to fast-paced narratives with a predilection for the shocking and the titillating? Finally, is to say that Sissako uses poetry as a challenge to, even a refusal of, narrative linearization in his films to say that his film language forces us to think differently about African cinema and, ultimately, African politics?

This past May, Sissako’s fourth feature, Timbuktu, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was received with almost universal acclaim. The skeletal story of a family destroyed by the unbending and merciless justice imposed by jihadist rebels on the fabled ancient Malian city that lends the work its title, Timbuktu is the culmination of a style the director forged in the making of his three previous films, La vie sur terre (Life on Earth, 1998), Heremakono (Waiting for Happiness, 2002), and Bamako (2006). If Timbuktu has the closest thing to a plot in any of Sissako’s productions, it nevertheless retains the basic architecture of his first film, a montage of independent but interpenetrating tableaux that together create a semantic structure far greater than the sum of its parts.

Life on Earth is, in essence, a film about time. The framing of the shots and the montage reveal the image of time, its movement, its rhythms, and its weight. Ostensibly the story of a young émigré, Dramane (played by Sissako himself), who returns from France to his father’s home in Sokolo, a small town in Mali, the country where the director was raised (he was born and at various times has lived and worked in Mauritania, where his mother was from), the film is as well a portrait of an artist as a young man and a lyrical meditation on postcolonial Africa, heavily inflected by the writings of Aimé Césaire.

The shots in Life on Earth are so carefully selected that they constitute a fictional world unto themselves, even before entering into relation with other shots. For example, the isolated framing of a young woman (Nana Baby) riding a bike along a path in the middle of a field or by a pond creates the effect of a fictional heroism that is similar to that which we see in the work of the late Malian photographer Seydou Keïta. (It is surely no coincidence that one of the film’s recurring vignettes involves a still photographer whose outdoor studio, much like the film itself, is the site of a series of portraits of Sokolo’s townsfolk.) The film’s final, long shot of the woman pedaling her bicycle into the distance is a good illustration of Sissako’s sense of framing—he cannily isolates the figure in a romantic rustic landscape—and the sheer duration of the shot produces ambivalent feelings of resilience and melancholy. That Sissako’s obsessive relation to framing is the most important aspect of his cinema is further evidenced by his meticulous composition of frames within frames.

I began by saying that Life on Earth is a film about time. A great long shot takes in the village commons, where all roads converge. First we see a bicycle rider (Dramane) enter the frame from the bottom and exit it from the top; then we see another rider (the young woman) cross the screen from the opposite direction; finally, we see a few cows and a herd of goats take over the space. As the goats enter the frame and move toward the camera, we realize that everything in the shot has been carefully choreographed to reveal the inscription of time on that particular space.

Already in this first major film we see the prominent place that Sissako will occupy among the directors of the new wave in African cinema. Here, he makes his mark on film language by creating distinctive long shots in which unfold autonomous stories that come off as a series of tableaux representing different sides of life in Sissako’s father’s village. For the viewer, the pleasure of the film derives from the play of relating these tableaux to one another and to the filmic text as a whole.

Sissako’s second feature, Waiting for Happiness, is, arguably, his first masterpiece. Formally it is even more accomplished than Life on Earth, with greater artistic and symbolic depth in its layering of multivalent signs and connotations. However, its content doesn’t stray far from that of his earlier effort, inasmuch as the story pressures many of the same binaries: departure and return, emigration and stagnation, rootlessness and identity, exile and home.

In Waiting for Happiness, a young man named Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed) has left his fatherland (Mali, one can only infer), hoping to emigrate to Europe; he arrives in Mauritania, where he seeks help from his mother for the final stage of his journey. Nouadhibou, a fishing town and Africa’s largest port, lies on the Cap Blanc peninsula—a place that attracts by the hundreds young men and women who board makeshift boats and attempt to traverse the perilous Atlantic for Europe. If Waiting for Happiness is an interesting story about the risks and rewards of human migration, it must inevitably also be read as a veiled autobiography of the director. Whereas in Life on Earth Sissako films his own return home as a narrative strategy meant to reinforce the search for truth in the documentary genre, in Waiting for Happiness the autobiographical imprints are fictionalized. Sissako invites the viewer to make comparisons between his own emigration (first to Moscow for film school, then to Paris) and that of Abdallah, and to see parallels between his childhood and that of Khatra (Khatra Ould Abdel Kader), a young boy who lives and apprentices with an elderly father figure.

One might argue that both Abdallah and Khatra are stand-ins for, or doubles of, Sissako; and for that reason Abdallah’s relationship to Mauritania, the filmmaker’s motherland, is fascinating: The country is home and not home at the same time; a place where he “doesn’t know anyone”; a milieu where he feels out of place because he dresses differently and doesn’t speak the native language (Hassaniya); a land that is close to Europe, where he wants to be, and yet a million miles away.

At the end of the film, we see Khatra, walking among sand dunes, disappear into the womb of the desert—as rewarding a Sissako long shot as any. The desert appears limitless, a place with no beginning and no end. Will Khatra survive these bleak surrounds and end up one day in Europe? Will he play the modern hero like all the émigrés who have their pictures taken in front of the Eiffel Tower and send them back home? As perhaps even its title suggests, Waiting for Happiness can be read as both a romanticization of emigration and a mordant, if oblique, critique of it.

Too oblique for some, apparently, and Bamako would be Sissako’s riposte to the many critics who considered his films more poetic than political. From its opening shots, Bamako points an accusing finger at the World Bank and the IMF, which are put on trial in the courtyard of the house where the director grew up. Here, Sissako’s search for an original image that is not yet corrupted by the dogma of narration and the propaganda of publicity leads him to question the very concept of what Godard once called l’image juste after the production of more than a century’s worth of stereotypes of Africans by Hollywood and European cinema and television. In Bamako, the spectator quickly feels the absence of the stock images and discourses of Africanism—an ideological regime codified into narratives and imagery that assure viewers of the predictability (and therefore the comforting “correctness”) of their narratives, an aesthetic regime in which filmmakers can distinguish themselves only through the power of their metafilmic repetitions, through their retelling of old stories, or through the shock of violence, as exemplified by the brutal whipping of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) or the gunning down of an unarmed white woman at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

In Bamako, Sissako puts mainstream film language on trial, in the same manner that the people in the film interpellate the World Bank and IMF before the courtyard tribunal. Perhaps the director believes that the best way to help the “witnesses” in the film make their case against these capitalist institutions is to place cinema, too, “under arrest.” We see cameras in the shots, sound equipment malfunctioning, and actors waiting for their turn to enter the scene or undergoing wardrobe adjustments. One feels as though on the set of a film, holding the script; the shooting will start anytime now. We’re on the threshold of the beginning—and that’s where the director leaves us, until the film’s end.

In Bamako, Sissako arrests the image before it can be made subservient to the plot, which suggests that the director has returned to the “imperfect,” Third Cinema of Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty, to name only the most prominent African practitioners in a movement defined by its strategy of incorporating politics into the formal as well as the thematic content of films. Bamako’s deconstruction of film language is as important as its critique of the world financial system, two regimes—one aesthetic, one economic, both ideological—that have historically impoverished and degraded Africa on the one hand and the images of Africans on the other. In questioning the ideological underpinnings of filmic discourse, Sissako allows the victims of capitalism to be seen and heard, to bear their own witness. This is the type of film Godard wanted to make when he went to Mozambique in 1978: fresh, unpredictable, and impossible to repeat or appropriate into the dominant cinema discourse.

By the time Sissako shot Timbuktu, he had carved out a choice space for the poetic in his cinema’s approach to contemporary African politics. Timbuktu depicts the arrival of a fundamentalist and absolutist Islam in that famed city, which, one notes, had converted to Islam nearly a millennium ago and has for centuries served as a meeting point of the cultures and civilizations of Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. The mainstream media familiarized us with images of Timbuktu under siege by the fundamentalist Muslim rebel group Ansar Dine in 2012 and 2013. In fact, the shocking images of women being beaten or stoned to death for appearing unveiled in public are no different from the ones we see today of the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria or of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. They are products of an insatiable system of image production for television, conventional documentaries, and dramatic fictions that endlessly replicate and recycle such events to comfortingly reconfirm and reinforce the beliefs of the viewer. Sissako’s imagery of Timbuktu looks—and operates—nothing like this.

Sissako is less concerned with proposing a counterdiscourse to the iniquities and liberticide brought on Timbuktu by the jihadists than he is with drawing new imaginaries with enough poetic power to enlist the spectator’s symbolic participation in taking Timbuktu back. In scene after scene, the film suggests that the jihadists are outsiders to the city. They speak a different language, dress differently, and carry guns even in the mosque, a holy place of peace and prayer. Instead of casting them as terrorists—the simplistic stereotype ubiquitous in mainstream narrative—Sissako paints them as a group of almost surreal characters good only at undermining the reputation of the religion they are supposed to be spreading.

Despite the imposition of sharia law, with its inhuman punishments, the population of Timbuktu refuses to buckle under: A fishmonger in the market won’t wear gloves because it is not a part of her culture; another declines to give her daughter’s hand in marriage to a jihadist, arguing that forced marriage to a stranger is not the custom in Timbuktu. Yet another brave woman, sentenced to forty lashes for making music with friends, sings in defiance while the mutaween whip her. But perhaps the best example of the popular rejection of Ansar Dine comes from a madwoman who walks around town, dressed in flamboyant clothes (without a veil), and goes about her business as if the invaders did not exist. Steeped in Sissako’s trademark poetics of play and irony, all these scenes imply that if anybody needs teaching about the true meaning of Islam, it is the jihadists themselves, not the people of Timbuktu.

The poetry of the film resides far from the everyday interactions between the jihadists and the people, on the outskirts of the city, amid the sand dunes, where a nomadic Tuareg family has made a seasonal stop. Satima (Toulou Kiki), her husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and their daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), chose the place because there’s still some grass and water left for their herd, but soon they will be forced to resume their errantry on the thousand plateaus of the Sahara. Through the conflicts between this family and the local fishermen on the one hand and the jihadists on the other, the film enfolds the millennial myth of the incompatibility of nomadism and rootedness. The Tuareg family becomes the spectator’s object of identification, as parents and child sit under a tent and sing or talk about the seasons and travels or about the pending threat presented by Ansar Dine. One of the jihadists’ secret love for Satima humanizes him, while contradicting his avowed fundamentalist beliefs.

Having a Tuareg family at its center, the film touches on an important issue that presents a conundrum for the nation of Mali. Sissako seems to be telling us that the presence of the Islamists in Timbuktu is only a symptom of the government’s neglect of the north and its failure to resolve the age-old conflict between nomads and sedentary peoples in the Sahara desert. By giving names and faces to the Tuareg minority, and by showing Kidane and his family caught up in the same maelstrom as the townspeople, Sissako makes available to us a reading of the Malian conflict that goes beyond the invasion of the north by the jihadists and invites us to imagine a solution to the problem beyond armed struggle followed by predictable political negotiations.

The fragility of Sissako’s characters in Timbuktu calls to mind Édouard Glissant’s pensée du tremblement (a quakeful, or tremulous, thinking), which he opposed to the strong and systematic reasoning of the West. To Glissant, thoughts that do not tremble are frozen, systematic, and sterile. A people that embrace only themselves and their culture as the only culture embrace nobody and nothing. The jihadists entered Timbuktu with a fundamentalist ideology, and weapons to enforce it, only to be faced with peaceful resistance. It is only by trembling with the people of Timbuktu—as Sissako’s poetic cinema positions us to do—that one can begin to penetrate the opacity of their mysterious city. Sissako’s cinema binds us to them in an unspoken language. As we tremble with the images, faces, and landscapes of Timbuktu, we enter a new imaginary; we begin to understand these Malians’ predicament under the jihadists’ regime of senseless violence, and we are reborn as new spectators. Unlike the moviegoer who leaves a Hollywood blockbuster numbed by the relentless flow of visual stimuli deployed to illustrate ready-made narratives, we viewers of Timbuktu are energized by the simple, unabashedly “imperfect” images we take with us and keep reworking in our minds, like poems.

Timbuktu opens January 28 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.

Manthia Diawara is a filmmaker and a professor of film and comparative literature at New York University.