“I think the main source of my inspiration is human beings: my neighbor, my neighbor’s neighbor, the person I buy milk from—all of those people.” – Abderrahmane Sissako
Born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako is often described as a filmmaker who expresses a particularly African point of view to an international audience. Although “African filmmaker” is both too expansive and too limiting of a label for Sissako, he has remarked that he is concerned with the generalized way that African people are presented in film and media. In a recent interview with Film Comment, he laments, “Africans are portrayed in a way that makes their issues seem mysterious, when in fact they’re really in many ways no different from Europeans.” Alternately, Sissako works from a deeply humanist perspective. Shot on location in places including Moscow, Tunisia, and Ethiopia, Sissako’s short films, made between 1991-2010, give a sense of the international scope of his body of work and provide insight into his unbounded interest in humanity.
October (1993), follows an African student studying in Moscow and his Russian girlfriend, who contemplates abortion on the eve of his departure. Tiya’s Dream (2008), one of eight shorts on the Millennium Goals Development film 8, follows a young Ethiopian school girl with a rich imagination and an ailing father. In Sabriya (1997), shot in the desert of southern Tunisia, brothers Said and Youssef bide their time playing chess at a café in male-dominated Maghrebi society. When a free-spirited woman named Sarra pays a visit to her mother’s homeland, she brings excitement to the quiet outpost, but disrupts daily routines and long-held traditions when one of the brothers falls in love with her.
These short works explore universal matters of love, friendship, suffering, and desire that motivate human interaction and govern daily life. Yet the specificity of place, and the ways that geography, architecture, and culture shape experience, is also central to these films. October and Sabriya, for instance, both feature characters who travel to unfamiliar landscapes and become involved in romances complicated by race, religion, and tradition. Cultural misunderstandings abound as the source of both humor and conflict. However, these exchanges represent a breakdown in communication, rather than fundamental difference.
Sissako’s films often begin at a turning point, or just prior to a moment when the otherwise quotidian lives of his characters have been ruptured. But even when circumstances drastically change for these characters, it remains understated. The most pressing issues are rarely confronted head on. The silent tensions in his films are familiar, but frustrating, as we want fictional characters to say what often goes unspoken in real life. However, Sissako has called regular human beings his primary source of inspiration, the “anonymous” people like our neighbors and shopkeepers, who we pass by but hardly see: Real people who function in the world without a script.
In his Film Comment interview, Sissako mentions the achievements that go unnoticed, like a seemingly ordinary woman who has given birth to 10 children, as especially profound. This remark is quite telling, as it is more often women’s stories that go untold. Sissako’s films, alternately, turn our attention to the unseen. Significantly, his films frequently place the dreams, desires, and struggles of girls and women, into the foreground.
The Short Film Program (1991-2010) includes all of Sissako’s short works and will screen this Thursday, April 16th at 9:30 PM as part of the retrospective series “Transnational Poetic Cinema: Abderrahmane Sissako” at the Indiana University Cinema. The program follows a screening of Sissako’s Timbuktu, nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Mauritania) and winner of France’s Cesar Award for Best Film. Sissako will be present for the Timbuktu screening, and again on Friday for the screening of his 2006 feature Bamako at 6:30 PM. He will also deliver the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture this Friday, April 17th, at 3:00 PM.
This series is sponsored by the College Arts and Humanities Institute, African Studies Program, the Black Film Center/ Archive, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Department of History, Film and Media Studies, The Media School, the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, the Russian and East European Institute, and the IU Cinema. Special thanks to Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Institut Français, Amélie Garin-Davet, and Marissa Moorman.