Film by Mauritanian director wins Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival

Report by Kristine Greenaway, member of the Ecumenical Jury

(Cannes, May 23) A film about the imposition of a totalitarian form of Islam on a village in Mali has won the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a film maker from Mauritania, tells the story of how local people resist the arrival of extremists who want to restrict women's liberty and to outlaw music and football.

The Ecumenical Jury Prize, awarded annually at the Cannes Film Festival by a jury of Catholic and Protestant film specialists, honours a film of high artistic achievement that reflects spiritual, social and ethical values. Winning directors are presented with a medal and a statement by the jury about the motivation for their choice.

In selecting Timbuktu for its top award, the jury expressed appreciation for the hope inherent in the actions of local people and their Imam as they resist the outsiders and seek to continue to practice a moderate form of Islam. The jury's citation says: "This film is a strong yet nuanced denunciation of an extremist interpretation of religion."

In accepting the award, the film's director Sissako, said: "We are not of the same religion but all religions are about love.  This film is about when religion is taken hostage, when love is taken hostage."

Abderrahmane Sissako at the award ceremony, with jury president Guido Convents

The film tells the story of what happens to an agricultural family when strangers seeking to impose a severe interpretation of Islamic law take over the community. When the father of the family accidently kills a neighbour in a dispute over a cow, he is subjected to an arbitrary trial and condemned to death.

The jury also awarded Commendations to two films shown in a separate competitive section for feature films, Un Certain Regard. Wim Wenders' The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado, was cited for its testimony to the human rights and environmental challenges confronting peoples worldwide. Hermosa Juventud by Spain's Jaime Rosales highlights the challenges facing a young couple trying to survive the current economic crisis.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Ecumenical Jury for the Cannes Film Festival, considered the world's premier film festival. The six-member ecumenical jury is appointed by SIGNIS, a worldwide association of Catholic communicators and by INTERFILM, an international network of mainly Protestant film specialists and theologians. Jury members choose the winning film from those in competition for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. This year 18 films from 12 countries are vying for honours.

Ecumenical Jury members evaluate films according to their aesthetic merits and the questions they raise about Christian responsibility in contemporary society. Past winners of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes include: Wim Wenders, Denys Arcand, Mike Leigh and Zhang Yimou.

Earlier in the week, the Belgian film makers Jean-Pierre Dardennes received the 40th Anniversary Prize of the Ecumenical Jury in honour of their body of work. The two brothers have received numerous awards including two Palmes d'Or and two mentions by Ecumenical jurys at Cannes: The Son (2002) and Rosetta (1999).

From left: Julia Helmke, Denyse Muller, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Jos Horemans