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November 7 - 10, 2014

The 16th Geneviève McMillan - Reba Stewart Fellow:
Cheick Oumar Sissoko

The McMillan-Stewart Fellowship in Distinguished Filmmaking was established at Harvard’s Film Study Center in 1997 with a generous gift from Geneviève McMillan in memory of her late friend, Reba Stewart, to support outstanding Francophone directors from Africa or of African descent. The most recent recipient is Cheick Oumar Sissoko, the third Malian filmmaker to be awarded the fellowship (after Abderrahmane Sissako in 1999 and Souleymane Cissé in 2001).

Born in San, Mali in 1945, Sissoko studied first mathematics, then history and sociology. While at university in Paris during the 1970s, he became active in several protest movements and decided that filmmaking was the best way to be able to continue this political engagement under the dictatorial rule of Moussa Traoré. After finishing film school, Sissoko returned to Mali and began making short documentaries before turning to fiction with his first feature film, Nyamanton, made on a shoestring budget using local crew and production and post-production facilities.

Using slice-of-life realism to tell a sympathetic tale of the struggles of Bamako’s poor, Nyamanton was a success both at Mali’s theaters and on the festival circuit. As Sissoko was finishing his second film—Finzan, about the subjugation of Malian women—he also became involved with the opposition to Traoré that led to his overthrow in 1991. Sissoko subsequently began working with the new government to support Mali’s film community even as his international status continued to rise with Guimba the Tyrant (1996) and Genesis. Shortly after the production of Battu (2002), which remains unreleased apart from a handful of festival screenings, Sissoko put aside filmmaking to become Mali’s Minister of Culture.

The HFA’s screenings provide an overview of Sissoko’s career, from the bare-bones filmmaking of Nyamanton to the epic sweep of Genesis. What remains constant are an unerring eye and keen wit, guided by the Brechtian dictum that art should both educate and entertain. Judiciously balancing the local and the universal, Sissoko has drawn on the West African tradition of oral narrative and the satiric edge of the Malian street theater called koteba. – David Pendleton

The HFA plans to present Guimba the Tyrant in early 2015 with Mr. Sissoko in person.

This program is a collaboration between the HFA and Harvard's Film Study Center, with assistance from the Institut Français, the Consulate General of France in Boston, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York.

Special thanks: Fabien Fieschi, Emmanuelle Marchand, Eric Jausseran—the Consulate General of France, Boston; Amélie Garin-Davet—Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York.

Friday November 7 at 7pm

Genesis (La Genèse)

Directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko. With Sotigui Kouyaté, Salif Keita, Balla Moussa Keita
France/Mali 1999, 35mm, color, 102 min. Bambara with English subtitles

Sissoko’s most ambitious film turns to the first book of the Bible to create an epic about cycles of violence and the seizing and wielding of political power. Sissoko’s version eschews the parts of the Book of Genesis most often adapted: here you’ll find no Garden of Eden, no Noah and no Moses. Rather he focuses on the story of Jacob and his sons. In doing so, he pulls no punches; the film includes scenes of ethnic warfare, rape and forced circumcision. As a result, Genesis has often been seen as a reaction to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 or, closer to home, to tensions between the nomadic Tuareg peoples of northern Mali. The film draws power from the beauty of its images and from Sissoko’s evocative use of location shooting around Mt. Hombori Tondo and in the desert.

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Sunday November 9 at 5pm


Directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko. With Chaka Diarra, Alikaou Kanté, Maciré Kanté
Mali 1986, 16mm, color, 94 min. Bambara with French subtitles

For his first feature-length fiction film, Sissoko focuses on children, like many filmmakers before him who seek to address with delicacy a society's injustices (de Sica, Kiarostami, Ghobadi).  A young brother and sister try to balance school and their menial jobs in order to be able to continue their education and so that their impoverished family can make ends meet. The film exquisitely balances the grinding poverty of the world of these children with moments of play and affection as they interact with friends and family. Like all of Sissoko's subsequent work, Nyamanton has its didactic moments, but the rest is given over to observing the lives of these children with simple directness and with moments of comedy and grace.

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Monday November 10 at 5pm


Directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko. With Oumar Namory Keita, Koti, Balla Moussa Keita
Mali 1989, digital video, color, 107 min. Bambara with English subtitles

Finzan is an impassioned cry of anger at the oppression of African women, set in a Malian village. A young widow resists her brother-in-law when he asserts his traditional right to “inherit” her, while a girl from the city, horrified to learn that the village still practices female genital mutilation, finds herself threatened with the ritual. The women’s assertion of their right to control their own bodies and destinies soon turns to a life-and-death struggle. Perhaps most crucially, Finzan presents clitoridectomy not as a traditional practice but as a form of oppression. Even as the stakes get higher and the tone darkens, Sissoko injects comic relief by drawing his self-satisfied male characters from the conventions of Malian popular theater.

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