TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Timbuktu’ Director Reveals How Islam Was ‘Taken Hostage’

Abderrahmane Sissako’s gorgeous film depicts oppressive jihadists invading Mali

Abderrahmane Sissako, Sharon Waxman
Jonathan Alcorn

“Timbuktu” shows Islamic fundamentalists terrorizing the peaceful West African nation of Mali, but director Abderrahmane Sissako doesn’t lay the blame on religion. Instead he argues jihadists have turned Islam inside out.

“With this movie I really wanted to show that Islam the religion has been taken hostage,” he told Sharon WaxmanTheWrap‘s CEO and Editor in Chief, at a question and answer session after an Awards Season Screening Series presentation of his film at iPic Theater in Los Angeles on Thursday. “But any religion is about love. So, it’s impossible, normally, to kill or strangle or murder someone in the name of religion.”

The film, which won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize at 2014 Cannes Film Festival, depicts the real-life reign of the Ansar Dine — a militant Islamic group that used Toyota trucks and automatic rifles to seize control of Timbuktu in 2012, before eventually forcing moderate townsfolk to adhere to a stricter religious code.

“The city was taken over by a group of people and everything changed,” Sissako explained. “Women had to cover themselves completely, and no more playing soccer. It was a city taken hostage.”

The film has a large ensemble cast, but pays special attention to one family in particular — the guitar-strumming father Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Each of their performances was pitch-perfect, especially considering all of them entered the project as amateur actors.

Les Films du Worso

“I come from a country with no theater and cinema, so there are no professional actors,” Sissako explained. “The woman who sells fish is a young actress from Mali. And the little girl, Toya, [comes from] a refugee camp in Mauritania.”

Co-writers Sissako and Kessen Tall based at least one of the film’s most disturbing moments on real life events. At one point, a man and a woman are buried neck-deep in dirt and then stoned to death by their neighbors. The same fate befell a real life unmarried couple in the nearby village of Aguelhok.

It’s a graphic sequence, but perhaps also a necessary one. Sissako believes he has an obligation as both an artist and a human being to shine a light on these tragedies.

“What’s terrible is that this story is completely unknown from anyone, but it happens every day,” he said. “The role of the artist is to raise awareness about such facts, and such acts.”

He also believes art and cinema can be catalysts for change.

Les Films du Worso

“When you’re an artist you have to believe in humankind and life,” he explained. “The values of humanity are the same everywhere. A child who is hurting in Timbuktu is the same as a child suffering in New York or Jakarta or Senegal — an orphan is an orphan everywhere.”

At the very least, the audience who screened “Timbuktu” on Thursday might now be able to empathize problems faced by those halfway around the world.

“It doesn’t quite matter how many people can watch a film, as long as one person understands and feels the impact of the story, that’s already a success,” he said. “And the fact that the movie is screened here is already an amazing victory for me.”