On 29 July 2012, while much of the world was glued to the London Olympics, a man and woman were abducted in Aguelhok, northern Mali. They were seized by Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that had recently occupied the village. The couple had two children, but were found to be unmarried. Soon afterwards, they were buried up to their necks and stoned to death.
Early the next year, director Abderrahmane Sissako began work on a movie about the takeover of a town by jihadis. He planned to shoot in Timbuktu, the desert city in Mali from which the film would take its title. For months, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith in Arabic) had advanced through Mali, seeking to impose sharia law, but by then the French military had intervened. Just before filming began, a checkpoint near the airport was struck by a suicide bomber. The entire production moved across the border into Mauritania.
Sissako sits drinking mineral water in a London hotel. Outside the door, suited figures are noisily schmoozing. He keeps his voice just loud enough to be heard above them. A neatly self-contained man of 53 with a professorial bearing, Sissako is currently Africa’s most prominent director. Both Maliand Mauritania are important to him: he was born in the second, brought up in the first. (There have also been spells in Paris and Soviet Moscow.) His English is strong enough to understand my questions, but he would rather answer in French. He speaks one sentence at a time, waiting for the translator to catch up before he continues.
Timbuktu had been planned as a documentary, but he realised it would be impossible when most of the gunmen were still at large. “You can’t make a documentary where people aren’t free to speak. And the risk is that you make a film for the jihadists – because they’re the ones who are going to do the talking.” When we meet, recent reports say they have returned to Mali in force. He half smiles. “They never left.”
As is now customary, when the couple in Aguelhok were killed, a video was posted online. Sissako is all too aware the modern jihadi is an eager film-maker. In one scene in Timbuktu, a young recruit is coached through an appearance on camera by his commander, who is as finicky as any auteur. You can see Timbuktu as Sissako’s retort to the propaganda: he offers humanism and grace in answer to the savagery. When sport is banned and footballs are confiscated, a match goes ahead anyway, beautiful and gymnastic – it’s just that the ball is imaginary.
At first, the jihadis aren’t monsters, but muddled kids and puffed-up buffoons, ordering women who are selling fish to cover their hands, haranguing old men about the length of their trousers. “The most terrible thing about this is that they are people like us. It’s always hard to say. But they are.” Then the film darkens. You can almost sense Sissako raging off-camera. “It’s the only film of my own that makes me cry. I’ve cried several times watching it.”
Since it premiered at Cannes in 2014, Timbuktu has become a quiet sensation, nominated for an Oscar and winning seven French Césars. It was also withdrawn from the African film festival Fespaco amid security concerns and was briefly banned in a Paris suburb following the Charlie Hebdo murders (the local mayor, who hadn’t seen it, assumed it was pro-jihad). All told, Sissako’s film has probably aroused more interest from the world’s press than the horrors that inspired it. “The media are interested when someone from France or Britain is taken hostage,” he says. “But the townspeople who are hostages, no one’s really interested in.”
To Sissako, himself a Muslim, the other hostage in Timbuktu is Islam. He says he doesn’t recognise his own faith in Ansar Dine. Their violence “makes Islam into something imaginary”.
Timbuktu is the latest film in a career spanning more than 25 years. Since the 90s, Sissako has been a regular on the festival circuit, yet little known beyond the arthouse. In 2007, when he was in Cannes with his film Bamako, he complained about the west’s lack of interest in African film. He gives a small shrug. “The west isn’t interested in Africa, full stop.”
But the west has never been the world. In the 70s and 80s, the Soviet Union fostered relations with much of Saharan Africa. In 1980, the teenage Sissako stayed with his mother in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, 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 Andrei Tarkovsky – he took it and lived there for 11 years. In 1993, the year he left for Paris, he made a film, October, about the relationship between an African student and his Russian girlfriend.
His feelings about Moscow are mixed. He remembers feeling faintly patronised: “There was a cliche of Africans as people who come to learn but who aren’t artists.” But the notion of Russia as particularly racist irritates him. “People in the west always like the idea that someone else is racist. It’s true that it’s easier in Russia to run into someone who calls an African a monkey. But in London, you can easily get into a lift with a racist. You just wouldn’t know it, because they’ll smile at you.”In Bamako, Sissako staged a mock trial that debated the role of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in keeping Africa poor. The film was personal: Bamako, the Malian capital, was where Sissako’s father lived, and where he spent most of his childhood, in a house with a well in the yard. He has said there were never fewer than 25 relatives living there. The film was also a fiercely intelligent breakdown of the crises that have beset Africa since colonisation, although new forces, he says, have come into play.
“When Mali was a colony, there was one bridge on the river Niger that goes through Bamako. After independence, the French were supposed to build a second. They never did. In the end, the second bridge was built by Saudi Arabia. The third was built by China. All the sports grounds have been built by the Chinese. The roads are being built by the Chinese. And in the west, they keep telling us, ‘Watch out for the Chinese.’” He mentions a Malian proverb: a drowning man grabs hold of the crocodile. “The west thinks China is a danger to Africa because the west was a danger to Africa. But really it’s a danger to the west.”
While the west may be indifferent to African movies, the situation is worse in his homeland. “Africa isn’t interested in African films.” Across the continent, he says, governments see no value in culture. In Mali, he says, Timbuktu has yet to be screened, but the problem isn’t the Islamists. “There are no cinemas.”
Yet recently, after a decade in Moscow and almost two in Paris, Sissako moved back to Mauritania. “Happiness is the ability to choose to go back. But I’m no happier there than I am anywhere else. It’s just different.
“I was unhappy living in Paris with two children. My set-up is very insecure, because I’m freelance, and Paris isn’t a good place to be insecure. I had to look in my letterbox every day and it was never good. And a society that makes you feel anxious about just opening your letterbox, that’s not a place I want to be. So I’ve gone back to Mauritania and now it’s fine.”
He talks a second longer and the translator bursts out laughing. “He says he now has no letterbox.”
• Timbuktu is out in the UK 29 May.