Compelling and marketable cinema usually comes from the same continents, over and over again. Countries in those continents (Europe, North America, and Asia) have the kind of support structures that ensure that out of the ever-expanding lot of budding filmmakers some film school graduates are going to become noteworthy filmmakers and will bring films to first-tier fests like Cannes.
The reverse of this seems to be true, too. People desirous of becoming filmmakers but who have the misfortune of being born in countries such as Laos or Nigeria and who have the DNA to become great filmmakers often have to exile themselves from their birth countries in order to develop their talent. That is what Mauritania-born Abderrahmane Sissako (his film “Timbuktu” is being show in Cannes this year) did when he went to study a few years at a film school in Poland.
Moving beyond generalizations, many other exceptions are to be found. Cissako has joined Ousmane Sembene and Souleymane Cisse as that eminent group representative of great African cinema.
Sissako, whose new project “Timbuktu” was screened last night here in Cannes, was as we say in French, “la claque,” the slap in the face that awakes the senses and energizes us film critics. The film isn’t without its imperfections, however.
“Timbuktu” tells the story of the city of Timbuktu–it was named “the city of the 333 saints” and “the pearl of the dessert,” a cosmopolitan place of where nations meet and ethnicities mingle, a city which was once a symbol of tolerance and symbiosis between the different communities who lived there–and personalizes it through the telling of several people’s stories, confronting the dramatic nature of a small but fanaticized group’s dominance over a town’s population against quiet, daily life. Islamists have taken over Timbuktu.
Ever since they took over the city after their well-documented 2012 destruction of sites registered with UN’s heritage sites charter, Timbuktu became a quasi-martyr.
Sissako shows the slow perishing of a city frustrated by the appalling mandates by the God-crazy Islamists about what to wear, what not to do, what not to listen to. Inhabitants, defiant are first, slide into resignation and apathy.
Sissako tells the story of “Timbuktu” through the prism of an Africa that’s been weakened by wars and dictatorships and sets up a complex web of relations between the North and the South.
“Timbuktu” is a moving and masterly ode to a continent too often unknown by us.