“Other People Situate Us”: Abderrahmane Sissako in Atlanta

A gazelle darts across the wall. Then a child’s face, running, panting, sing-praying. Then a scattering of armed jihadists across the desert landscape. Gazelle. Child. Men with guns. Gazelle. Child.

Then darkness.

And then, slowly, muted light. We are in the theater again.

Abderrahmane Sissako, arguably the most famous contemporary film director from the African continent, takes the stage with deliberation, stretching out the silence.

“To talk after a film like that,” he says in French, “is a form of violence.”

He pauses. Half the audience grimaces, the other half waits for the English translation.

“But I am here to meet you and I want to meet you, and so.” He exhales. “I will talk.”

I have come to Atlanta for the rare opportunity to view Mr. Sissako’s films Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono) and Timbuktu alongside the director, whose works have played at the Cannes Film Festival, won multiple César Awards, and received an Academy Award nomination.

The two films this weekend display the breadth of Sissako’s interest and skill. Waiting for Happiness, set in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, explores life in a liminal space between technology and tradition, home and away. Timbuktu depicts the arrival of jihad to the title Malian city in its range of human appearances, dividing attention between the powerful and the powerless.

Now, onstage, Sissako stares straight forward, and the space around his mouth crinkles – a smile, perhaps. His mannerisms are either minutely calculated or utterly idiosyncratic. I sense that we observers are not supposed to know.

In his films as in his person, precision and possibility coexist.

“Film needs to capture chance,” Sissako tells us. In practice, he blurs the line between “acting” and ordinary life. He sources actors on location, often using their own names as character names. Sometimes, he provides only slight structure for improvised movements and words.

Call it a radical approach, but to Sissako it reveals a basic humanity. “When you manage to trust people,” he says of his quasi-improvisational style, “Magical things can happen.”

This focus on a transcendent human “ordinariness” is a function of Sissako’s self-identified universalism. I’m skeptical of universalism in general for its ability to avoid essential conversations about the realities of power and privilege, but Sissako almost convinces me, using the poetic sentiment of the universal in the service of a political message.

The media only makes noise about people who resemble its audience, Sissako reminds us. His films, in their attempts to show the world that people in Mali and Mauritania look and act like they do, demand equal media attention.

It sounds like a noble goal, but doesn’t this approach still cater to the system that Western media has put in place? Is this attempt to highlight cross-cultural similarities a compromise of identity to win attention? What would it look like for a film to demand the interest of Western media in spite of difference?

These screenings take place as part of the 2015 France-Atlanta celebration of cooperation between (you guessed it) France and the American Southeast. The French consulate, represented by a man who looks like he stepped into the room off a Paris fashion runway, proudly announces its financial support, in a gesture both generous and neocolonial – France claims ownership over the art of its former colonies in the same breath it selects it to promote “French culture” abroad.

One has to assume that Sissako, who has folded himself into a half-cushion of the onstage sofa, is aware of these forces at play. When asked whether he situates himself as an African filmmaker, he keeps his gaze straight ahead. “Filmmakers don’t situate themselves,” he says, his tone flat. “Other people situate us.”

Critics and viewers treat the African filmmaker with “intellectual laziness,” he continues, assigning him a “continental identity.”

If I’m not careful, I think, I could be one of those “other people.” It’s easy for me to criticize others without problematizing my own viewing. When I acknowledge the sympathy I feel in response to the images onscreen, I think of Susan Sontag’s cautionary words in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering…is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

What she’s saying, it seems, is that films don’t have to end – shouldn’t, in fact. If images spark, we viewers kindle vital flames of introspection and critical conversation.

***

[If you’d like to start that conversation now, leave a comment! I appreciate thoughtful critique and honesty.]

-Hannah Fenster

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