A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the kindly and serene Abderrahmane Sissako, director and co-writer of the well-crafted Timbuktu, the Mauritanian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Timbuktu was respectfully received at Cannes last May, but it’s one of the grimmest films I’ve ever sat through. Grim. My personal idea of misery is no wifi or sitting through an awful film or being dropped by a beautiful girlfriend who was magnificent in the sack. Misery in Sissako’s film, which is set in the Timbuktu region of Mali, a mostly barren African nation that few people in this country have heard of and wouldn’t give a shit about if they have, is much more hard-core. Forget about it. Shot in Mauritania, it’s about the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, a relentlessly purist, wacked-out Islamic militia dedicated to enforcing Sharia law and order. The film was partly inspired by a public stoning of an unmarried couple in Aguelhok, in eastern Mali, but that’s just another pebble in the pond. I think we all know about the pitch-black souls of nutter Islamics by now.
Timbuktu director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako, translator Myriam Despujoulets during our interview at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center.
Timbuktu is in no way boring. Sissako knows how to tell a riveting tale and keep you engrossed, but good God. This is a film about dirt-poor hardscrabble types living in various states of misery and deprivation, powerless, at times terrified and always subject to rigid judgments and brutalities. An awful way to live. If there’s an uglier, crueler, more inhumane, more rancid belief system or culture than Islamic fundamentalism, I’d like to know what it is. The earth needs to be absolutely cleansed of this scourge. Welcome, western audiences, to life in one of the worst ideological desert prison camps ever created. Watching Timbuktu, for me, was like squatting on dirt at the bottom to a mine shaft, accompanied only by the flame of a single candle and surrounded by snakes and rats and bugs. Call Orkin, the extermination specialists.
Which isn’t to say that Sissako (Waiting For Happiness, Bamako) isn’t a formidable artist with a strong voice and world-class chops. He knows from verisimilitude, good acting, pacing, framing, cutting…a first-rate artist as far as delivering this kind of hellishly realistic filmmaking goes. Some (like Variety‘s Jay Weissberg) regard Sissako as Bresson-like. “In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones,” Weissberg wrote. “Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master.” I wouldn’t dispute Weissberg for a second. The only problem or hiccup for me was that watching Timbuktu meant I had to sit there and suffer under Sharia law along with the characters in the film. I wanted an early ’90s version of Arnold Schwarzenegger to come to the rescue and blow these Ansar Dine motherfuckers to kingdom come.
The French-speaking Sissako is a lovely man, a former Parisian (he now lives in Mauritania), an elegant dresser, very cool. Chatting and trading views and generally spending time with him was a real pleasure. Thanks also to the Los Angeles-based Myriam Despujoulets for her excellent translation.