Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako is Africa’s most prominent film director. His 2014 film Timbuktu was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won seven French Césars. Sissako’s themes include globalisation, exile and the displacement of people.
Abderrahmane Sissako was born on October 13, 1961 in Mauritania. Soon after his birth Sissako’s family emigrated to Mali, his father’s country, where he completed part of his primary and secondary education. In 1980, the Sissako returned to Mauritania, to stay with his mother and found himself visiting the Russian Cultural Centre. He was drawn there largely by a liking for ping-pong. Later, it was Russian literature. The director of the centre encouraged him to pursue a scholarship. When the chance came to go to Moscow to study at the VGIK – the Soviet state film school that also trained – he took it and lived there for 11 years. In 1993, he left for Paris.
Sissako make two short films about his time abroad, which address, head on, the political currents of the time. In October (1993) and the documentary Rostov-Luanda (1998) Sissako explores the relationships African countries forged with the world beyond those with 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 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.
In 2002, he rose to prominence with his contemplative but humorous film about one Mauritanian boy’s desire for an electric lightbulb. Waiting for Happiness launched Sissako onto the world stage. He won the Foreign Cineaste of the Year and the Fipresci film critics’ prize at Cannes.
In 2007, he released Bamako, which was met with critical acclaim and Sissako was declared at the vanguard of African cinema, building on Ousmane Sembene’s political, realist brand of filmmaking and taking it to new audiences. Set in an outdoor courtroom in a mud-walled compound, the Malian people are plaintiffs who accuse the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of harming their economy.
In 2014, he released his film, Timbuktu, which tackles the recent occupation of Timbuktu by jihadists. It was called “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 offers a different perspective on the lives of people reported in the news.
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.”
Besides his work as a director, he also works as a cultural advisor for Mauritanian head of state Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.