by Matt Levine
Those living outside of politically turbulent areas have the luxury of outrage; Western commentators, for example, can rail against the absurd injustices of Sharia law without worrying about retribution from extremist occupiers. Not so with artists who have personally withstood such inhumanity, for whom such political tyranny must be dealt with as part of everyday life. This partially explains the surprising tone of Timbuktu, which is often rueful and melancholy though it tells a tragic story of Sharia brutality. Trauma and bloodshed ultimately, inevitably arise, but for much of its running time Timbuktu is a gently humanist story of politics running roughshod over people’s lives, taking away their right to be themselves.
Walker Art Center
February 20-March 1
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Producers: Etienne Comar, Sylvia Pialat
Writers: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall
Cinematographer: Sofiane El Fani
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Music: Amin Bouhafa
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noël, Fatoumata Diawara
Premiere: May 15, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 28, 2015
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
The film is by Abderrahmane Sissako, who split his time between Mauritania and Mali (his mother’s and his father’s country, respectively) when he was young. After studying at the VGIK film school in Moscow, Sissako lived in France for many years; most of his films to date (including Timbuktu) are coproductions between French and North African companies. Sissako is one of the most well known African directors worldwide, a list of artists that remains distressingly small. His films Waiting for Happiness (2002) and Bamako (2006) both premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; the latter film especially stands as the masterpiece about the World Bank and IMF’s damaging influence on African economies, conveyed by an audacious melding of documentary-like naturalism and Brechtian artifice that reveals Sissako’s formal innovation (which is easily as complex as his sociopolitical commentary). I’ll never forget the moment in Bamako in which Aminata Traore, the former Malian Minister of Culture, states in a makeshift court trial against the World Bank, “I strongly oppose the idea that Africa’s main characteristic is its poverty… Africa is rather the victim of its wealth.”
Timbuktu is also about the victimization of North African communities by outsiders who claim to be bettering their societies—though in this case, the damage is done by Islamist jihadists who take over the Malian city of Timbuktu, their assault rifles allowing them to prescribe what is or isn’t moral. Almost immediately, we’re treated to a bluntly symbolic image of the jihadists using Malian artifacts for target practice; the metaphor isn’t subtle, but it’s a perfect demonstration of Sissako’s outrage, bitter yet eloquent. A group of jihadists storm into the local mosque, where the imam, in an expression of calm fury analogous to Sissako’s, asks why they would commit jihad in the house of Allah and forces them to leave. “Where is God in your actions?” the imam later asks—vividly illustrating the difference between the peaceful doctrines of Islam as taught in the Qur’an and their violent bastardization at the hands of militant extremists.
The first thirty minutes of the film are devoted to the absurd prohibitions passed down by the jihadists, which initially take on a sadly ridiculous tone. One man is reprimanded for rolling up his pant legs—a clear violation of the law. A female fishmonger, not one to submit readily to anyone, refuses to wear the gloves that the extremists demand she wear to cover her skin; how can she wear gloves while she descales fish? “They made us wear the veil, now the gloves,” she bursts out, in one of the more overt denunciations of conservative Islam’s sexism in recent memory. Later, a group of friends (including an unmarried couple—blasphemy in the jihadists’ view) performs a gorgeous song in their apartment—one of the most moving scenes in the film, though it leads to gruesome consequences. When soccer is outlawed in Timbuktu, a group of young athletes plays the game anyway with an invisible ball; it would be a poignant enough scene with everyone running around randomly, but their movements are carefully choreographed, all running to the same part of the field in pursuit of a nonexistent ball, suggesting their sport as a sort of natural camaraderie, untouchable by politics—they’re still playing the same sport, even if the extremists have deprived them of its tangible objects.
These early scenes, melancholy in their observation of the residents’ everyday lives, give way to a more urgent solemnity as the plot kicks into motion. Timbuktu focuses on a cattle-herding family that lives in a tent on the outskirts of the city; the father, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), spends his days with his cattle and his nights with his family, strumming a guitar while his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) sings along. Their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) lies nearby, and an adopted son, Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), sporadically visits from a nearby tent. Kidane dearly loves his wife and daughter, as revealed when he prays late in the film and faces the opposite direction of Mecca because “my daughter and her mother are there.” Their rural existence outside of Timbuktu at first removes them from the political maelstrom taking place in the city, even though the jihadists’ leader, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), takes issue with the headstrong Satima’s refusal to cover her face or hair. But when Kidane accidentally shoots a fisherman in retaliation for the killing of one of his cows, the extremists’ court imposes a “blood money” payment of forty cattle—a payment that Kidane cannot possibly make, thus ensuring his death sentence. Kidane and his family could have easily been a stereotype of salt-of-the-earth simple folk, but the lived-in performances by Ahmed, Kiki, and Mohamed ensure that they take on the pathos and believability of real people; it’s one of the more remarkable depictions of familial love in years (not to mention a portrayal of self-sufficient, pious individuals who have no need for economic infrastructures or organized religions).
As the plot grows bleaker, the film’s tone becomes unambiguously somber. A female singer is lashed forty times in public—twenty times for singing non-Islamic songs, and another twenty for being alone with her male accompanist—and sings a fervent hymn in the midst of her punishment, addressing God as the jihadists’ whips tear into her back. (Music and art have long been beacons of hope in Sissako’s politically oriented cinema.) An unmarried couple is stoned to death, the scene removed of all emotion by its disorienting editing—which only, of course, makes it that much more disturbing. There is no semblance of a happy ending, which is only fitting; what kind of hope would exist for an overrun community whose freedoms have been violently ripped away from them?
Obviously Timbuktu denounces Sharia law and condemns extremist militants who make a mockery of Islam; it’s a denunciation that must have appealed to liberal Academy voters, who nominated Timbuktu as Mauritania’s first contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. But Sissako is too subtle and compassionate a filmmaker to paint the jihadists as bloodthirsty villains. They’re hypocrites who pretend to do God’s bidding when they’re only serving themselves. Abdelkrim sneaks a cigarette away from his comrades and seems smitten with Satima, speaking to her gently and falteringly—until he orders her to wear a veil. Another extremist, a former rapper, is ordered to give a videotaped testimony about his moral rejuvenation, but when the camera is rolling he can’t bring himself to say the words; he realizes, perhaps, that claims to ethical self-fulfillment would be disingenuous. While Hollywood movies about Islamist extremism might portray them as maniacal villains, Timbuktu paints them instead as power-hungry cowards, a notion unnervingly conveyed when one of the jihadists, stymied by the townspeople, mows down a patch of grass with his assault rifle—momentarily appeased by his ability to destroy.
In March 2012, the extremist group Ansar Dine did, in fact, take over Timbuktu, exploiting Malian unrest after mutinying soldiers overthrew the government. By April, Sharia law was instituted, forcing much of the city’s Christian population to flee (which partially explains the strangely abandoned appearance of “Timbuktu” in the film—actually shot in the Mauritanian city of Oualata). Ansar Dine was driven out of Timbuktu by French and Malian forces by April 2013, but not before the jihadists destroyed several important sites of Islamic cultural heritage, the Ahmed Baba Institute and the tomb of a Sufi saint among them. It seems clear, though, that Sissako isn’t providing a clear-cut, factual account of the takeover; the stoning scene, for example, is based on an actual public stoning that took place in Aguelhok, Mali in 2012. The plight of the people of Timbuktu might, sadly, parallel the experience of any number of towns that have been hijacked by militant extremists. Timbuktu is more generally a cry of outrage at the perversion of religious faith and the brutality of controlling other humans through propped-up religious strictures.
As such, it’s one of the most powerful condemnations of social injustice (and Sharia law specifically) to come out of Northern Africa. Of course the sensitivity of the cast deserves much of the credit; the loving glances between Kidane and Satima, or the restrained fury of a woman whose daughter has been taken by one of the jihadists as a wife, elevate Timbuktu far beyond the realm of a melodramatic message movie.
More than anything, though, Timbuktu reveals Sissako as one of the greatest directors working in the world today. His understanding of composition and editing is astonishing: whether a static close-up of a woman singing blissfully in her lover’s arms or an extreme long-shot of a man wading through a river, shocked by a recent tragedy, the sun setting over the mountains in the distance, Timbuktu wields visual dynamics as an essential tool in affecting the audience. A number of God’s-eye long shots reveal the folly of such human behavior; if there is some kind of divine presence watching from above, it must be outraged by how wickedly the notion of faith has been abused by the people below. Crosscutting and montage are used to develop political ideas; several courtroom “trials” are intercut in order to emphasize the total injustice of them all, and the stoning sequence is part of a bizarre montage that cuts to a jihadist dancing in some kind of trance, seemingly controlled by a witchlike "Holy Fool” observing from nearby. (This witch character, wearing a long dress and often cackling while holding a chicken, is a jarringly offhand depiction of sorcery, though it makes sense as an inclusion of the small number of indigenous, animist religions that still survive in Mali.) Nearly every scene in Timbuktu reveals Sissako’s visual sophistication; if the majority of the critical world regarded African cinemas the way they do, say, France’s or Japan’s, Sissako would be regarded as an undisputed master.
With its political complexity and flinty humanism, Timbuktu harkens back to the incredible wave of post-colonial African films that sought to interrogate modern political turmoil through abstract, dialectical means. Films like Med Hondo’s Soleil O (1969) and Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (1973) grappled with the newfound independence of African states, compromised though they were by lingering colonialism and economic exploitation. Timbuktu may be more linear and cohesive than those audacious works, but it shares with them a belief that the language of cinema can be used to develop complex political ideas and foment agitation among audiences. There’s also a rueful subtext: many of the themes of neo-colonialism and warring African factions that Sissako’s predecessors tackled forty years ago are still relevant. Implicit in Timbuktu is the acknowledgement that the city, once one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan in Africa and a prominent site of Islamist scholarship, is now impoverished and drought-stricken. Jihadism is the immediate subject of Timbuktu, then, but the film is also about the riches of Africa (monetary and otherwise) and how they’ve been manipulated by outside forces—one of the predominant themes in the first wave of Francophone African cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The film’s complexity and visual daring might best be conveyed by its opening and closing scenes, bookends which portray a gazelle running, silently and gracefully, through the brush. In Timbuktu’s opening, we take the images literally: the jihadists chase after the gazelle in a Jeep, firing at it mercilessly, hoping to “tire it, not kill it.” At the end, however, this footage is intercut with several groups of people running through the frame, either chasing or being chased, as the jihadists’ gunfire, coming from some indeterminate place, takes on a more metaphorical meaning. At one of Timbuktu’s most dramatically tense moments, Sissako leaves us not with narrative closure but with a series of symbols: humans who have lived on the land for centuries reduced to a gazelle sprinting for its life, running away from their tyrants and tormentors, running to find the city and the land they once knew.