Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014.
Screening from Saturday 13th June
This film is set in Mali and depicts the occupation of the titular ancient city by Jihadists. The director, Abderrahmane Sissako [Bamako, 2006] avoids the crude representation found in many Western films and its media. This is a subtle and complex portrait of both the local people and the rather disparate army of religious warriors. In an interview reprinted in Sight & Sound (June 2015) Sissako explains:
“Generally, when the world speaks about my country, or indeed Africa in general, it does so in a tone which is, quite frankly, condescending, as if there’s one continent which is simply wretched and others which are rich. The world may speak about Ebola on a daily basis, but it hardly ever mentions that the African is also beautiful, strong and moving forward.”
The beauty is here in the excellent widescreen cinematography of Sofiane El Fani. There are intimate scenes but also long shots and long takes of the impressive landscape. Whilst the film is generally ‘slow’ the editing by Nadia Ben Rachid also intercuts moments of drama and ‘moderate violence’ [BBFC]. Music is one of the activities banned by the Jihadists, but the spare score by Amine Bouchafa makes fine use of the indigenous music for which the region is famous.
Among the other bans is football: but the film offers one of a number of moments of humour in demonstrating this. It does the same with smoking, clothing and the socialising of men and women. The film follows several stories of both inhabitants and Jihadists but there is also central dramatic thread running through the film. Five languages are spoken in the film. It provides English subtitles, and their intelligent use fills out the relationships between characters.
The opening sequence is a chase in the desert scrubland, very fast movement rare in the film. This sets up both a theme that is central to the film and a recurring motif that illuminates the final sequences of the work.
In the 1980s there were sufficient numbers of films from Africa for festivals of this cinema. Now we have only rare opportunities to see them. But Sissako is a worthy successor to filmmakers like the ‘father of African cinema’ Ousmane Sembène. This is a film with an informed and sympathetic understanding of the indigenous culture but with a strong sense of the new influences that are changing Africa.