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Five Minutes With: Marco Pavan, Documentary Journalist, “All Is Written”

“Books have enemies. We must save them.” Librarians and scribes of the Koran of Timbuktu had gone to great lengths to protect the manuscripts from the Al-Qaeda extremists during the 2012 Northern Mali conflict. Marco Pavan talks to us about the subject matter that inspires his documentary, All Is Written, winner of the 36th Bellaria Film Festival 2018.


What got you into exploring Koranic scribes and 17-Century manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali? How long did it take you to research and document this subject matter?

The film was born as part of an exhibition held at Gallerie delle Prigioni, a new space dedicated to contemporary art based in Treviso, Italy. The first exhibition, What Is Written Will Remain, was focused on language and calligraphy from the Sahara. The film Everything Is written wanted to provide some background to that theme with the idea of telling that it is important for everyone to preserve all kinds of knowledge and culture.

It took about three months to get things started, then a couple of more months to film and edit the documentary (we worked on a very tight schedule!). Research was made a bit easier because some films and books already existed on this matter. I can point out two of them: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer and Altre Afriche by Andrea de Georgio, a young Italian journalist based in Mali who then became my fixer and producer.

The ancient city of Timbuktu, Mali, was a melting pot that saw the Malians, Berbers, Tuaregs and Arabs existed side by side in peace. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

What does it take to be a scribe of Koranic verses? Is there a set of criteria?

To be a copyist it takes a lot of patience and a deep knowledge of the different styles that can be used in Arabic writing, especially when it gets to ancient manuscripts. Above all, I imagine, it takes really a lot of practice.

Boubakar Sidek, the last copyist of Timbuktu, transcribing the holy verses. Calligraphy lends beauty to the manuscript and encourages the scribes to write. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

We saw your photos of the ‘kalam’ – the tablets on which the holy verses were written or engraved on. Those, we were told, were a similar format to the Tablets of Stones that Moses had. I’d imagine methods of reproduction like photocopying, printing and photography – not to mention book-binding – are available in Mali. Why are these not used?

Of course also “modern” means of reproduction are used in Mali. Printers can be found everywhere, even in a town that lies in the middle of the desert like Timbuktu. The tablets you mention were filmed in a madrasa, the Koranic school where pupils learn the holy writings by writing them and reading out loud to learn. One verse is written, memorised and then erased to move to the next. Paper is expensive and it would be a great waste. Tablets are the traditional way of doing it.

Mali, Timbuctù, scuola coranica di Baba Moulay, presso Djingareyber
A ‘surah’ (letter) containing holy verses, or chapter as it is now known, is written on a tablet. Once memorised, the verses are then erased and a new chapter will be written to be learned by heart. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

You mentioned about the scribes trying to save the 17-Century manuscripts from the destruction by the jihadists. What are the jihadists trying to achieve by destroying these old artefacts – even those of Islamic persuasion? Is it a form of control? Are they trying to initiate Year Zero?

In war, the destruction of culture has always been a way to destroy the enemy. Ancient ruins were knocked down in Palmira, Syria; the Nazis burnt books they didn’t like. Artefacts have no way of defending themselves and are an easy target with a great degree of symbolism.

In this specific case, some books were ancient and precious and were stolen to be sold in the black antique market, others contained those that were considered false stories on the life of Prophet Muhammad, others were burned for spite by the occupiers who, defeated, were about to leave the town chased by Malian and French armies in 2012.

Peace has returned to Mali, enforced with the help of the United Nation and French troops. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

“Artefacts have no way of defending themselves and are an easy target with a great degree of symbolism.”

Your documentary was screened at the Bellaria Film Festival. Tell us about the festival and the audience it attracts.

Let me start with a good news: Everything Is Written has won the 36th Bellaria Film Festival! It is a small but well-known documentaries festival. It attracts film enthusiasts and industry representatives, other than other directors and writers. This year, president of the jury was Moni Ovadia, Italian actor, theatrical writer with Jewish roots, and a strong opponent of the current racist climate rising in society.

Mali, Timbuctù, atelier di calligrafia di Boubacar Sadek
The ancient manuscripts were protected by being carted out of Timbuktu during the 2012 conflict. Some people resorted to burying old manuscripts in the sand to save the artefacts. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

What was the last book that you read?

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti.

E-book, PDF or print?

Print! I don’t own an e-reader and I like the feeling of the paper.

Mali, Timbuctù, scuola coranica di Baba Moulay, presso Djingareyber
The Koran school of Baba Moulay at Djingareyber, Timbuktu, Mali. Photo: © Marco Pavan.

About Marco Pavan

Marco Pavan is a multimedia producer, director and photographer currently working for Fabrica and Gallerie delle Prigioni. He is especially interested in art, intercultural subjects and human rights.

About All Is Written

Documentary trailer (in Italian):

The film will be free to watch from 4 January 2019 for 72 hours, both in Italian and English. International version:

About Bellaria Film Festival