A Masterpiece That Messes With Expectations

French Filmmaker Sylvie Pialat Visits CSI to Screen “Timbuktu”

By Jean-Claude Quintyne

Prolific Producer and French filmmaker Sylvie Pialat visited CSI for a screening and master class of her academy award-nominated film “Timbuktu” at the Center for the Arts on October 19.

The screening, hosted by Professor Dr. Raquel Gates and Professor David Gerstner, head of the Department of Media Culture, was the second in a series of opportunities for cinema students to be exposed to the world of film-making in quality-focused territory outside of Hollywood.

“Timbuktu,” directed by Abderrahmane Sissako and based on a real events, recounts the invasion of the Malian city of Timbuktu by a group of Islamists who impose Sharia Law.

It observes the effects the invasion has on the people of the city and the Islamists, illustrating, with as much attention to detail on the lives, intentions, and mindset of families and individuals, what the threat of violence does.

The film is significant for the way it plays with audience expectations.

It isn’t the standard violent-Islamist narrative in that it questions, through minimal dialogue and strong focus on mise-en-scene, the purpose of violence and the role it plays in affecting the lives of those who inflict it and those who are victims of it.

An arthouse smash in France, “Timbuktu” was nominated for a Cesar award—the French equivalent of the Oscars—and nominated for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Academy Awards.

The nature of the film’s composition was one of many reasons Professor Gates and Professor Gerstner put the event together.

They felt it best to create the opportunity to hear Producer Sylvie Pialat’s experience getting the film made. So with help from the Center for International Services and the African Diaspora Studies Department, students from Professor Gates’ class and other subjects of study were invited to the screening and master class.

Students were generally impressed by “Timbuktu” and praised the film’s cinematography and narrative.

One student, who wished to remain anonymous on the grounds that she doesn’t wish to be identified by the media, expressed that she was taken aback by the overall “steeliness” of the central family of the story.

She felt that, in the face of oppression, it was inspiring to see such fearlessness from individuals who are otherwise portrayed as “helpless.”

Pialat expressed, when asked about the film’s location, that the crew was under pressure, because of the danger that surrounded the city most of the film was shot in.

Only one scene from the film was actually shot in “Timbuktu,” and, in spite of the danger, the crew, including the talent, were able to maintain focus and take great advantage of the experience.

The film was also praised for the way it portrays women.

Female characters represented the strength of the film, and were the backbone that kept one of its overarching themes together, which also tied in to the significance of Pialat’s presence.

One scene featured a fish seller, who defied Islamist soldiers as she refused to wear gloves—a law created without justification.

The matriarch of the central family conveyed her strength and influence through the glances she directed at her husband, another observation by the audience that was the subject of many comments.

The looks illustrated that she is the source of strength of her family, as much as the husband’s efforts to bring life back into the city through illegally playing music.

“It gave a different perspective on what’s normal,” said Rosemary Archer, a personal assistant who attended the screening.

“It had a very positive effect. It helped me realize that things aren’t always as they seem, because of what the American media displays a lot is often always the opposite of what actually is happening.”

“Timbuktu,” which has grossed $4.5 million in Euros and over $1 million in the U.S.—a rare feat for foreign arthouse films—also is dedicated to show that “Islam has nothing to do with barbarism and jihadists,” Sissako, the director, said in an interview with Variety earlier this year. “Islam itself has been held hostage.”

He was inspired to make the film after hearing the news of the stoning of a woman.

Amidst the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks which took the lives of 17 people at the satirist publication in February of this year, the film was banned by Jacques-Alain Bebisti, major of Villers-sur-Marne in Paris, who felt the film would inspire youth the become Jihadists.

Sissako and Pialat, in spite of threats and watching the film get overlooked at the Cannes Film Festival, pushed forward and continued to believe in the film, watching its success steadily increase via increased interest in the film, a wealth of positive reviews, and word-of-mouth.

Pialat, who has 20 feature and 15 short films to her credit, is also a screenwriter and  the founder of the Paris-based production company Les Films du Worso, and was recently awarded the Daniel Toscan du Plantier Award for the second consecutive year, the French Academy’s top producers’ prize. She received her first Plantier prize for “Stranger by the Lake.”

She is the wife of acclaimed French filmmmaker Maurice Pialat, who passed away in  January 2003.

CSI was her second stop on a mini United States tour focused on discussing the film. The Sunday night before the master class at CSI, she spoke at Purchase University, and will then travel to Harvard for another screening.

The producer’s arrival comes just a few months after Professor Gerstner invited French filmmaker Christophe Honoré for a screening and master class of Honoré’s “Metamorphoses,” a thesis on the Greek-EU crisis, at the CUNY Graduate Center in the spring.

Christin Odessy, who is mastering in Liberal Studies at CSI, jumped at the opportunity to explore, through a different medium, how the West and non-West interact and how drastic perceptions of cultures, societies other than Americans’ can be drastically “righted with an accurate portrayal.”

“This film [challenges] the notion that there’s your story, there’s my story, and then there’s the whole story. And the whole story is not just being told with one perspective over the other. I thought it was going to be more folkloric, more “tribish” things, and when it did open with the gazelle, then the hostage situation, and the fisherman, I let the delusion go that this was going to be about one person and was able to see the full picture as a whole.”




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