Cannes Check 2014: Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, the Competition's only African entry: Abderrahmane Sissako's “Timbuktu.”

The director: Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritanian/French, 52 years old). Another of this year's five newcomers, Sissako has established himself as one of Africa's premier auteurs, though he's been based in France since the early 1990s — a background that complements his favored themes of globalization and outsider identity. Born in Mauritania, he moved with his family at an early age to Mali, where he completed his schooling, before studying film at Russia's Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow — an institution that also boasts Aleksandr Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovsky among its alumni. After settling in France, he began making short films — one of which, “October,” premiered alongside feature-length work in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1993. 2002's “Waiting for Happiness” also played in UCR, where it won the FIPRESCI prize; 2006's “Bamako,” which premiered out of competition at Cannes, was his most lavishly acclaimed and widely distributed film to date, as well as his most political. The next year, he used his position as a Competition juror to decry the limited presence of African cinema on the festival circuit.

The talent: As usual, Sissako favors a blend of professional and novice actors: among the former are stage-trained French-Tunisian actor Abel Jafri (whose credits include minor roles in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud”) and Hichem Yacoubi, who played a small but crucial role in Jacques Audiard's “A Prophet.” Sissako's producer on this occasion is Sylvie Pialat, a significant force in French independent cinema who also recently steered “Stranger by the Lake” and “Our Children.” Sissako's co-writer, Kessen Tall, takes her first screen credit here. His new cinematographer, Sofiane El Fani, was a mostly unknown figure until shooting last year's Palme d'Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color”; editor Nadia Ben Rachid has been a longtime collaborator.

The pitch: There's one IMDb page for Sissako's film that is currently confusing Cannes-bound journalists, claiming that “Timbuktu” is an adaptation of Paul Auster's novella of the same name. Ignore that. The reality sounds far more gruelling: “Timbuktu” is instead inspired by the true story of a young unwed couple in the Northern Mali town of Aguelhok who were stoned by death by Islamic extremists in 2012 for the crime of having children outside marriage. It was a story that drew international headlines, though it's not clear how directly Sissako's film is based on it; distributor synopses list varying detailed backstories, though it would appear that the film represents a less isolated protest against Jihadist social repression in Mali.  

The prestige: It's somewhat surprising that this is Sissako's first Competition appearance, since he has a long history with the festival. In addition to premiering several films in the Official Selection (to prize-winning effect) over the years, he has served on three separate Cannes juries: in addition to his 2007 Competition juror stint, he also presided over the 2003 Un Certain Regard panel and served on the short film jury in 2000. So he's about as respected an insider as a Competition virgin can be, while “Bamako” significantly raised his profile among world cinema followers.

The buzz: Only to a point, however — Sissako's admirers are ardent ones, but he remains a figure of specialized cineaste interest relative to many of his Competition rivals. While most are expecting “Timbuktu” to be pretty strong stuff, it's not appearing on many most-anticipated lists. That's not to say, of course, that it couldn't stun critics when it plays for press on the very first night of the festival.

The odds: Juries tend to be aware of the limited presence of African cinema in major festivals: if a film from the continent delivers, it often finds its way to a secondary prize of some sort. Given the political resonance of the material in this case, you could do worse than take a punt on “Timbuktu” for the Palme d'Or: Jigsaw Lounge gives it short odds of 6-1, while Paddy Power, warier as ever of more exotic names, pegs it at 16-1. Likelier, perhaps, is that the film proves too austere for the top prize, but is instead rewarded with Best Director or even the Grand Prix.

The date: “Timbuktu” formally premieres on Thursday, May 15.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll profile one of the Competition's few surprise entries: Damian Szifron's “Wild Tales.”