Why you should care

His life story could be a movie itself.

On the sunny terrace of his home outside Madrid, actor and musician Ibrahim Ahmed seems unsettled, out of place. Maybe it’s a legacy of his roots as a Tuareg nomad in the Sahara Desert. Or as a survivor of a bloody civil war still haunting his beloved Mali. Or perhaps it’s that just now, he’s not certain where life, or his art, may take him next. “All that I can say is that I’m here,” he says.

Slim, tall and handsome, Ahmed, aka “Pino,” was a musician who had never acted when he was cast in Timbuktu, a 2014 French-Mauritian film that drew Oscar and Palme d’Or nominations and won a slew of international awards, including a best actor award for Pino at the Durban Film Festival. His acting was captivating, and why not? The story of the Mali desert capital being overtaken by jihadists echoed his own life. He offers a simpler explanation: “They just told me to act naturally, so I asked myself how John Malkovich would do it,” he says.

My rebellion is shooting with words.

 

His accomplishment was remarkable for another reason: It’s rare for an African actor to actually play the role of an African. There are only “five or six” African actors who get regular gigs, says Diarah N’Daw-Spech, founder of the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York and one of the judges at the Durban Film Festival. “African cinema is not geared toward art and acting. Stories are not written for African actors, Black actors.” And the limited roles often go to Black American or British actors whose faces are more familiar to movie audiences.

That may begin changing, as the media and entertainment industries mature across Africa. The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, a global NGO, recently estimated annual growth in those areas at 5 percent GDP per capita. “Nollywood,” as Nigeria’s growing film industry is dubbed, has focused on low-budget films made mostly for local audiences. It’s the second largest employer after agriculture, and second on the continent only to South Africa’s more international film industry, according to business publication AFKInsider. That’s good news for Pino’s ambitions but, says Miguel Machalski, a French-based scriptwriter and expert on films from developing countries, Timbuktu will only help so much. The film’s real star was director Abderrahmane Sissako, not his mostly untrained cast, he says.

In Timbuktu, the jihadists impose Sharia law, forcing a Muslim community to change its ways. Its desert scenes are mesmerizing in their beauty and hostility, and mesh elegantly with a story of surviving in a no-man’s land where globalization meets war meets tradition meets death. Pino’s character is a nomad who accidentally shoots and kills a cattle-herder. After he’s sentenced to death, he tells the invaders that while he accepts God’s will, they too will be judged for their injustice against a people’s way of life.

He is just as resolute when he recounts his own life. He grew up in the Mali region of Gao after leaving behind his nomadic life as a Tuareg, a Berber nation of desert dwellers who have survived centuries in the Sahara. Nobody knew him by his given name, only by his nickname, Pino, after Pinocchio, bestowed on him by the uncle who raised him after he tried to lie his way out of a scolding. Then came civil war. His expression grows a bit somber as he speaks of the misery he saw and survived, recalling bloated bodies floating in the river. He was tempted to stand up for his people, a historically rebellious clan that continues to wage guerrilla wars against those who want to suppress their way of life. He carried a weapon but never used it. “My rebellion,” he says, “is shooting with words.”

In his 2009 Encyclopedia of Human Rights, David P. Forsythe says art inspired by war and other degradation is of “immense importance,” because “it can speak in ways universally understood, often where no other form of speech is possible.” From the poets of ancient Greece to Picasso’s haunting Guernica to the revival of once-repressed cultural traditions in postcolonial Africa, generations of artists have proven his point. For Pino and many other Malians, music, a fundamental aspect of their culture banned by jihadist forces, has been their primary weapon of resistance, carried with them as they fled. Their struggle is captured in another newly released film, the documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Pino’s exile took him to Algeria, then to France, where he played bass in a couple of popular bands. Now 30, he finds himself in a posh Madrid suburb with his wife, daughter and son, though he travels widely promoting his music — his first solo album is a mélange of reggae and traditional Tuareg — and Timbuktu. He admits he feels a bit out of place here. He doesn’t speak Spanish. His dreadlocks are an aesthetic choice (“I don’t smoke joints”); a well-trimmed beard completes his stylish indie look.

Pino knows he was lucky to have scored a starring role his first time out, and even as he eyes a possible run at live theater, he understands the long odds of making it as a working actor. But for now he is willing to take things as they come. “Life is about trust,” he says. “I prefer that my next role finds me.”

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