November 18, 2008 — Abderrahmane Sissako knows what it means to feel like an outsider. The award-winning filmmaker was born in Mauritania, raised in Mali, studied in Moscow, and now travels the world screening films and accepting awards for his work.
Sissako's latest stop, as a distinguished Artist-in-Residence at the University of Virginia through November, has him attending classes, screening his films and running workshops for undergraduate students.
His visit was facilitated by the Department of French Language and Literature and the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, among several others, and is part of a multi-departmental vision to have artists of all kinds in residence, constantly participating in student life at the University.
The decision to invite Sissako was easy after the response to his brief visit in 2006, assistant French professor Alison Levine said.
"He initially came here when I was organizing a one-day conference on visual culture in the French-speaking world," she recalled. Sissako premiered a film of his and held a question-and-answer session afterwards.
"He had a wonderful warmth and presence, and ability to talk to students, that really got our undergraduates excited," Levine said.
The discussion was so lively and interesting for students and filmmaker alike that the room could not contain the conversation.
"When we had to go, we just went outside and continued the conversation on the sidewalk," she said.
This month, Sissako participated in the Virginia Film Festival and screened films of his own, always to a packed crowd of students and community members.
Over the course of November, four of Sissako's most recent films were shown to the public in Wilson Hall. On Nov. 13, he screened "Waiting for Happiness," which won eight awards at film festivals around the world in 2002-2003, including Best Film at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema.
The film follows a 17-year-old boy named Abdullah who comes to Mali from Mauritania to visit his mother. He is on his way to Europe, wears Western clothes, speaks none of the local Hassanya language, and feels like a stranger in his own home.
These themes of exile and return are found across the body of Sissako's work. During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Sissako explained to a packed room that "exile is at the heart of my life. It's not something I suffer. ... It's a state of being."
Sissako pours much of himself into his films, and his own experiences moving around as a child and adult inform his characters and stories. When a student asked about the reason for making a film like "Waiting for Happiness," Sissako's answer was biographical.
"It's never clear or easy, but one wants to tell one's own story, hoping it resembles the life of someone else," he said. "… I wanted to tell a story about anonymous people. Every nation is the fruit of numerous voyages and trips."
Relationships with the audience, too, are critical to Sissako's work.
"When you make a film," he told the audience, "it's a conversation with someone else, and you try to make that conversation harmonious. You want to make yourself understood — not only in the things you're trying to show the audience, but in something you share with the audience."
"Waiting For Happiness" lacks a precise and obvious ending, another Sissako trademark. The lack of a clear-cut ending "makes the film a personal experience. The subject of this movie is not something that happens uniquely in Africa."
The title of the film prompted the most pressing question from the audience, and one Sissako was particularly excited to answer. The title, he said, came from a town he came across in his travels whose name literally translated to "waiting for happiness."
"It's clear to me that people in this film are not looking for happiness in other places," he said. "My theory of life is that happiness is in the waiting. It's in the search for happiness that people find their happiness."
Again, the conversation continued on long after the formal question-and-answer session, to a reception and beyond.
Bringing artists like Sissako to the University is part of a broader educational and cultural goal, Levine said.
"I think that part of the University's mission is to broaden our horizons and to talk to people across borders, across disciplines, even across national boundaries. Mr. Sissako is the type of person who doesn't fit into categories," she said.
"He brings out discussions about crossing boundaries and borders, and that's part of the University's mission — to create discussions across people and boundaries."
Sissako will be at U.Va. through Dec. 4. He will screen two more films: "Life on Earth", on Nov. 20 and "Rostov-Luanda" on Nov. 24. Both screenings are at 7 p.m. in the Wilson Hall Auditorium. For information, visit www.virginia.edu/french/sissako.html.