Storytelling: Timbuktu director Abderrahmane Sissako on the role tech plays in the creative process
Having left Mauritania at the age of 19 for the new horizons offered by developed countries Russia and France, Abderrahmane Sissako, the director of multi-award winning film Timbuktu, tells us about the role that technology plays in the creative process of storytelling.
Forced to leave my country for far away climes, I quickly realised that learning about anything required a certain predisposition, especially in learning how to use technology and in our relationship to it. And actually, I found that this predisposition, this acceptance of technology, is in some ways actually stronger in people from faraway countries because they understand that being part of this ongoing globalisation means mastering certain tools.
For me, in film, while technology doesn’t provide inspiration, it is an important tool – much like an artist’s paintbrush – and it’s a lot faster and more reliable than using 35mm film in 40°C heat to shoot remote locations in Africa. For instance, before digital technology, we would have to send the film away to be developed; it would take two days to get to the capital, before going on a plane, and finally reaching the lab eight days later. And all that only to be told that everything you’ve filmed came out blank. Now, you can actually watch everything you’ve shot immediately, which is a huge technological change that’s a lot more reassuring for us from the outset.
Some people are nostalgic about 35mm, and when it disappeared it was sad, but it’s not normal to be sad for things like that – now you can get a close-up in two clicks. However, editing the film still requires the highest level of human skill, so we mustn’t be afraid of technology, we should take advantage of the opportunities it brings.
For me the future of film lies only where people haven’t expressed themselves yet and not in technology itself because, despite the advantages, what matters in the end is the story and the need to touch people for some reason or other in the way you tell that story. Technology allows for this expression to be made accessible – that’s the future. And it means film can evolve in such a way that it allows those who haven’t been involved much before, like in Africa, to become part of it, because for me, film’s real identity lies in its universality.
More and more people are expressing themselves, and indeed the films that astonish, even at Cannes, are those that come from further afield, where the creative urge to make film is very strong and where films are still a rarity. And so there is that predisposition I mentioned before in people who have never been in a film, who have never been actors, who aren’t stars, and yet who succeed in surprising through their performance just because they were approached so that they could tell a story.
Paradoxically though, in Africa, where people adapt very quickly to technology, there are no cinemas in countries like Mali or Mauritania, or in certain big African cities. Although mobile phones, now the norm in most countries, render films accessible via the internet, the lack of cinemas remains frustrating for African filmmakers as we make films that can’t be seen in our native countries.
The impact of technology on the future of film is going to be minimal, simply because while technology is an important tool, in the end film is about emotion, and technology can’t provide that – creativity is what brings emotion.