Of the (scandalously) few African filmmakers who have found international acclaim, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako is undoubtedly the best known today: his films have been Cannes hits, and his most recent feature a much-lauded contender for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars.
Since rising to prominence in 2002 with his contemplative but humorous film about one Mauritanian boy’s desire for an electric lightbulb (Waiting for Happiness), his films – addressing globalisation, identity politics and now, most controversially, Islamic radicalism – have offered serious narratives about the realities facing Africa today, told through searingly beautiful images.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
He studied in the Soviet Union
Born in 1961 in Mauritania, Sissako lived most of his life in the west African country of Mali before travelling to Moscow to study at the Federal State Film Institute, between 1983 and 1989.
A quirk of his filmmaking education that he shares with arguably the father of African cinema, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, Moscow offered support and training to west Africa’s students where its former colonial ruler, France, was reluctant.
For the students of the newly independent west African countries, the Russian federation extended a hand of ‘Soviet friendship’, through cultural exchange, education and training, hoping to coax countries onto the course of communism as they negotiated new political landscapes, free of European rule.
The two short films that Sissako made reflecting on his time in Russia are remarkable, precisely because they address, head on, the strange new political currents of the time. October (1993) and the documentary Rostov-Luanda (1998) see Sissako not only exploring Soviet filmmaking styles and aesthetics, but also investigating the little-known relationship that Africa had to the world beyond its former colonisers.
October, shot in 1993, is a dark and near-silent black-and-white film that tells the story of Idrissa, an African student, and Irina, his Russian girlfriend, and depicts the difficulties of forming a relationship across the racial and cultural divides of the 1980s, between Mali and Moscow.
The film also shows Sissako’s reverence for the great Russian filmmakers: in one scene October makes a direct reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Andrei Rublev (1966): Irina pricks her finger on a rose Idrissa gives her, and a single colour shot jumps out, the red of the blood a shock in the otherwise sombre film.
He took on the World Bank
After Waiting for Happiness launched him onto the world stage, winning him both the Foreign Cineaste of the Year and the FIPRESCI film critics’ prize at Cannes, Sissako turned his lens back to Mali, and to his own family courtyard in the country’s capital.
Bamako, released in the same year that Sembene died – 2007 – was met with critical acclaim, and Sissako was declared at the vanguard of African cinema, the figurehead of a new generation taking Sembene’s political, realist brand of filmmaking to new audiences.
It’s set in an outdoor courtroom in a mud-walled compound, where the Malian people themselves are the plaintiffs accusing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund of harming their economy. Part-improvised, part-scripted, it’s an attempt to give the African people their day in court – an act of symbolic justice against the forces of globalisation and neocolonialism that have ravaged the continent.
We hear from the prosecution that for over 20 years the World Bank and the IMF have forced governments into subservience to western powers through inflated debt repayments. “It’s obviously an improbable scenario: to put on trial these two institutions that nobody can hold accountable. But that’s the point. In this little courtyard we make the impossible possible,” Sissako said of the film.
Amid the legal wrangling, and the dense theories put forward on debt policy and privatisation, one scene jumps out, like Irina’s thorn-pricked finger. Mele (played astoundingly by Aïssa Maïga), a woman whose relationship is on the rocks, in a final scene sings – through glistening tears – a heartbreaking but infectious afrobeat song by Christy Azuma and the Uppers International. It’s electrifying.
He dares to humanise jihadists
“If you look at the different stories, there are different blocks, you can move them around, put them in different places. And for me, that’s what cinema is.”
If there’s a style or approach that links Sissako’s films together, it is his fragmentary storytelling, which allows him to broach difficult and at times dense and complex subject matter without presenting any grand conclusions.
Timbuktu, released in the UK on 29 May, brings together interwoven stories of residents of the ancient Malian city – in recent years a restive region wracked by violence and Islamic fundamentalism. Here, he builds a portrait of daily life full of empathy and humanity, resulting in what is now known as “the film that dares to humanise jihadists”.
Released in a climate of fear and sensational headlines, following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Isis’s ongoing murderous rampage and Boko Haram’s brutality in northern Nigeria, Sissako’s piecemeal narrative enables him to investigate the people behind the news stories, offering multiple perspectives that complicate the people on screen.
Sissako told the New York Times: “To portray a jihadist as simply a bad guy, who does not in any way resemble me, who’s completely different, that’s not completely true.” The jihadist is, he says, is “a fragile being. And fragility is an element that can make anybody tip over into horror.”
This fragility spills over into his storytelling: he eschews a clear position, leaving the subject of religion and violent fundamentalism open to interpretation, and crucially, to discussion.