Art Against Extremism: Abderrahmane Sissako to Receive Dartmouth Film Award

Friday, April 17, 2015
The presentation of the Dartmouth Film Award to Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako on Tuesday is timely.

The award acknowledges the rise to artistic prominence of film directors from Africa, which is a little like saying the rise to prominence of directors from Asia or Europe. Huge continent, many countries, peoples, languages and cultures. Nonetheless, films made in Africa by Africans of different nationalities are gaining more attention in the U.S, and a Dartmouth Film Award, the 57th to be given out since 1979, is a recognition of this.

Sissako’s most recent film Timbuktu will be screened in Loew Auditorium at 7 p.m before he receives the award. The presentation concludes a three-day visit by Sissako to the campus. He was unavailable for an interview before this article went to press.

Timbuktu was nominated last year for a Palme d’Or at Cannes, and for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s the third film directed by the 53-year-old Sissako, who studied filmm aking in Moscow and divides his time between France and Mali.

Timbuktu is a superbly acted , beautiful film, which might seem a strange word to use about a movie that depicts life under the rule of Islamic militants. It doesn’t flinch from showing, or implying, its atrocities, although it does so in a measured way. This isn’t a Hollywood blood-and-guts spectacle, but a subtle consideration of how humans, both oppressors and oppressed, behave under duress. Even in scenes charged with a palpable tension, the landscape provides a kind of solace. The billowing sands, the hues of the sky at dawn and dusk, the animals and plants, will still be there after the militants have gone. Love still survives, even under appalling circumstances.

One of the first images to appear in the movie is the black flag of an Islamic militant group, fluttering in a desert wind. It appears on the horizon much in the way the Jolly Roger used to appear in old pirate movies. These are predatory opportunists — thieves, thugs, mercenaries and acolytes along for the ride — as much as they are religiously-motivated ideologues.

It’s a moment that resonates with fear because there’s nothing the people of the ancient capital of Timbuktu, Mali, can do to stop the incursion. Their government can’t or won’t help them, and they don’t have the strength or the weapons to fight them off themselves. What Timbuktu’s residents must figure out is how to survive, which is no simple task, given the imposition of absurd, contradictory rules that have no relevance to the way they live. No playing of music after a certain hour at night; no soccer games; no smoking; illogical rules governing daily commerce; no amusements to speak of.

The residents of Timbuktu flout these rules, of course, which leads, sometimes, to brutal punishments, but on occasion also to a reconsideration by a few Islamic fighters. And the fighters routinely violate the laws, too, which makes them both hypocrites, and human. They eye married women and young girls, smoke when they’re not being watched, still sing rap music.

In one humorous scene (yes, the film has humor), a group of Islamic militants appear to be comparing the superiority of other fighters until you realize they’re really discussing the merits of famous soccer players. It’s not so easy, Sissako argues, to shed your identity and take on a new one, whole cloth.

What Sissako does so well is to make his points without appearing to make them; they’re woven throughout quite naturally. The Islamic fighters come from different countries and different cultures, and often have nothing in common with one another. Many of these young men are deeply confused and ignorant, and so embrace a cause that seems to have given them a purpose and identity they lacked. They parrot ancient Koranic text and law, or at least a partially-digested understanding of it, but are really more comfortable with, and dependent on, 21st century technology to disperse their repugnant message.

The way Sissako uses cell phones as a motif throughout the movie gets across the unsettling and radical changes that have come to more geographically isolated peoples and cultures. Timbuktu is a film not easily forgotten.

Timbuktu screens on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Loew Auditorium. There will be a post-screening discussion with Abderrahmane Sissako and Prof. Ayo Coly, chairwoman of the college’s Department of African and African American studies.

For tickets and information call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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