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Timbuktu director breaks down at Cannes Film Festival

17 May 2014, 09:06

Cannes - A woman screams in pain before bursting into song as she is lashed 80 times, another gasps and dies as stones rain down on her in an execution.

The subject of Timbuktu one of the Palme d'Or contenders about the Islamist occupation of northern Mali  is so distressing that director Abderrahmane Sissako broke down in tears Thursday during an emotionally-charged press conference at the Cannes Film Festival.

(Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako. AFP)

Speaking about the fabled Malian city that was torn apart by terror in 2012 when it was overrun by jihadists who applied the harshest form of Sharia law, Mauritanian-born Sissako  who grew up in Mali suddenly fell silent, put his head in his hands and started weeping.

"I cry in the place of those who experienced this real suffering," the 52-year-old eventually told reporters, as Toulou Kiki, the actress who plays one half of a couple in the film, silently wept next to him.

"Real courage is those who lived these moments on a daily basis. They waged a silent combat."

Rapturous welcome

The film revolves around Kidane, his wife Satima played by Kiki and his daughter Toya, whose lives plunge into the abyss as nearby Timbuktu gradually sinks into the horror of the Islamist occupation.

Wielding loudspeakers, jihadists many of them foreigners tell uncomprehending residents that cigarettes and music are now prohibited.

Locals initially put up a fight in scenes that blend farce and tragedy, like when a woman who sells fish angrily stands up to a jihadist after she is told to wear gloves.

In another scene, an elderly man takes off his loose-fitting trousers altogether when his attempts to roll them up from the ankles under Islamist orders fail repeatedly.

But soon they yield to the power of these foreigners, as executions, punishments and imprisonments become the norm.

The film received a rapturous welcome at this year's May 14-25 festival.

"Timbuktu is a name that conjures up exotic adventure; an important trading post for the Mali empire, in its golden age it was a university centre of Islamic learning," wrote the Hollywood Reporter.

"But after watching the devastating drama, it's likely to become a synonym for the worst excesses of Islamic fundamentalism, which are mercilessly depicted in all their everyday cruelty, horror and stupidity."

Some actors knew jihadists

While a French-led military offensive drove the militants out of Timbuktu last year, violence still erupts there on a regular basis and Sissako decided to shoot the film in the safer Mauritanian oasis town of Oualata.

He recruited some of the actors in the country's sprawling Mbera refugee camp for Malians, and several extras knew people who joined the ranks of the jihadists at the time of the occupation.

Oumar Haidara, a Malian who plays the role of a jihadist shouting out orders in a megaphone, said one of his nephews had done just that.

"When the Serval (French-led military) force arrived, I never saw him again and I don't know where he is today," he said in an interview for a France Culture radio documentary about the film.

"I chatted with a jihadist, we had different opinions. He tried to convince me, but imposing Islam with guns, no way."

As such, many of those in the film are amateurs rather than professional actors.

Sissako said that the man who plays Amadou, a fisherman on a lake who kills one of Kidane's cows in a move that sends the protagonist's life spiralling out of control, is a fisherman on a lake in real life.

But far from portraying the jihadists as rabid, blood-thirsty militants, Sissako tries to give them humanity.

"In every being there is complexity, there is evil and there is also good," he said.

"It's important to say that the jihadist is someone who also resembles us, and who no doubt at one point of his life tipped over into something."



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