Premiered at Cannes where it won the Ecumenical Prize and the François Chalais
Award, Timbuktu also received the Best Film Award at the Durban International Film
Festival in July this year. The film tells the story of how the simple lives of the
inhabitants in and around the historic Malian town of the title, are affected by the
occupation of the Islamic fundamentalist group Ansar Dine. Anticipating the North
American premiere at Toronto, director Abderrahmane Sissako took the time to talk
to Screen Africa.
What was your starting point for Timbuktu?
Sissako: My fiction was inspired by the killing of a fisherman by a shepherd. And it all
went fast through co-writing with Kessen Tall. It went fast, especially because I
needed the funding to shoot this year. Under normal circumstances, I do not write
this fast. This is how this film came about. Actually, I did what I like most: writing
while shooting. That means, making room for improvisation, trusting characters and
actors who never worked in cinema. You believe in someone, then you just go. You
trust the person and you take that person along, knowing your own fragility, and the
risk you are taking, and you build from there.
Where was it shot?
Sissako: The shooting took place in Oualata, Mauritania, a sister city of Timbuktu.
Mauritania allowed it and there was security. That was the only country where such a
film could be shot. I also shot in Timbuktu, discreetly, during two days.
Your actors, mainly unknown, are brilliant. How did you choose them?
Sissako: In the script, the couple was Tuareg. During the research, we didn’t find any
actors. Not so many movies are shot with Tuaregs but many of them are singers. So I
followed what was happening in the music world and my first choice was a great
singer but that didn’t work. My casting assistant, who had done a casting in Bamako,
sent me a picture of Ahmed Ibrahim aka Pino (who plays Kidane in the movie). I saw
his face and thought: “Yes, he is a musician, so he is flexible, at ease in front of a
camera, and he knows the stage.’
With Toulou Kiki (who plays Satima), I heard through friends that there was a young
Tuareg singer in Montreuil, France. As to Toya (played by actress Layla Walet
Mohamed), the little girl, I met her in M’bera Camp in Mauritania where I had been
looking for a couple of friends to play in the movie. At that time, I was looking for a
three-year-old girl to play the role of Toulou’s daughter but it was not easy. So I
started considering that this was a script mistake. And Toya was there, all the time, in
front of me. She would not leave us alone. My first AD Demba Diaye told me: “This is
incredible. This girl will not go away until you choose her for the part.’
Then, Fatoumata Diawara (the singer), I knew she was an involved person, one of the
first people to remind people about what was going on in Mali. So I took her on this
journey. As for Zabou (the witch) I was looking for someone like that. I was
introduced to a girl that illustrator Titouan Lamazou had met while painting portraits
of Tuareg in Niger. She was from Gao. As she travelled all the time, I had met her in
a camp in Burkina Faso before she disappeared. It was impossible to find her again.
This is when I thought about Kettly Noel (a Haitian dancer based in Mali).
The Jihadists, portrayed in their intimate complexity, play a leading role in your
movie. The different languages they speak shows that they come from different
Sissako: This land they are occupying is foreign for them. They came from various
places. Northern Mali’s occupation was like that: Jihad international. Gao’s police chief
comes from Tunisia, the village chief may be from Pakistan, and the guard is
Nigerian… This is important, even though various languages could theoretically be
combined in a harmonious way to serve the film in its form. Interrogating Kidane
through a Tuareg interpreter is really important. It is important to have a part that
cannot be understood – except by those who speak Arabic. This must happen, but
before it happens, the other one listens, watches, and thinks: “What are they
saying?’ But it is coming, afterwards, totally offbeat. It hypnotises the audience, in a
At the centre of the film is the killing of the cow, which underlines the traditional
opposition between the cattle farmer’s world and the fishermen’s one.
Sissako: Definitely. This happens quite often, but it will certainly disappear when
agriculture or cattle breeding becomes industrialised. All peoples have experienced
that. I wanted to turn that into an accident, because it would have been difficult to
generate compassion with a premeditated murder.
Why had you not directed a film since Bamako in 2006?
Sissako: That’s life, that’s all. For me, there is no ritual act about making films, no
calculated meetings where one tells oneself: “It is time, it has been two years, three
years since…’, Or: “This film is working, people trust me, I have to make another
one.’ I think that it’s often dangerous. When you have the possibility to direct movies
– which means to be part of a privileged group because not everybody has that
privilege, including the talented ones – it is not all that simple. I love to be taken by a
subject. It has to dominate me, to remind me that it is important. It is at that
moment that I feel I have to make it.