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.