Timbuktu, from the Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako is a stunning film and likely to be the best I’ll see this year. It’s a portrait of the country of the director’s childhood, and particularly of the city of Timbuktu, whose rich culture and traditional tolerance were trampled and its people terrorised when jihadi forces from outside the country swept in three years ago.

Beautifully photographed by Sofiane El Fani, Timbuktu is, in the words of Ryan Gilbey’s New Statesman review, ‘a film in which small pieces stand in for a daunting and horrifying whole’. Strangely, given its theme, the film’s sympathetic observation of individuals under pressure and their small acts of resistance leave the viewer feeling uplifted.

Timbuktu defiance of local shaman
Timbuktu: the local witch doctor defies the jihadis

The film is Sissako’s response to the events in his homeland in 2012-13 when a Tuareg insurgency demanding independence for the northern part of Mali was hijacked by the Islamist group Ansar Dine which began to impose its ultra-conservative brand of Sharia law in captured towns such as Timbuktu: women were ordered to cover themselves, adulterers and other transgressors stoned to death, and thieves had their hands cut off. In an Islamic country renowned for its tolerance – a reflection of local Sufi traditions – video games, music, drinking alcohol and football were banned.

Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu by reading the news of an unmarried couple in Mali who were stoned to death by Islamic extremists for having children outside of marriage. Timbuktu remained a stronghold for Islamists from 2012 until 2013, when they were driven out by Malian and French troops.

Threatened by Islamists a woman challenges them to cut off her hands
Timbuktu: Ordered to wear gloves by Islamists, the fish seller challenges them to cut off her hands

The film opens as the Islamist forces arrive: heavily-armed men in 4X4s race through the desert sand dunes chasing a gazelle, seeking to tire out the animal. Then, in a series of constantly-shifting scenes and incidents, Sissako quietly portrays how the lives of city-dwellers and traders, fishermen and cattle herders are suddenly disrupted by dogma ruthlessly enforced at the point of a gun. ‘Roll up your trousers, it’s the new law,’ a jihadi with a sub-machine gun orders a passing man (the trousers keep unrolling, so the man – casually, but defiantly – simply removes them and walks off, tossing them over his shoulder). A woman selling fish in the market is ordered to put on gloves to conform to the edict that women must be completely covered. ‘How can I handle fish with gloves on’, she asks, before thrusting her knife forward and challenging the jihadis to cut off her hands.

Armed jihadis prowl the streets on motorbikes, issuing edicts: smoking is forbidden, music is forbidden, football is forbidden. Women who do not cover up are sinful. Infringement is mercilessly punished with a public flogging or stoning. ‘Where is the leniency? Where is forgiveness?’ asks the local imam when armed jihadis enter the mosque without removing their boots. Their response is: ‘We are the guardians of all deeds since we arrived in this territory.’

Timbuktu defiance of local witch doctor
Timbuktu: defiance by the local witch doctor

There are small acts of resistance. The local witch doctor, a wild and fantastical figure of a woman bedecked in multi-coloured ribbons and trailing a long black train behind her, halts a 4×4 full of armed fundamentalists simply by spreading her arms. Young men carry on playing football after football has been banned – miming the moves with an invisible ball.

Timbuktu woman kneeling
Timbuktu: a young woman caught playing music with two male friends (Fatoumata Diawara) is subject to a public whipping.

This being Mali, music plays a central part in Sissako’s film. One of the most powerful moments comes after a group of young musicians – both male and female are caught, late at night, playing music in their own home. Jihadi fighters burst in to break up the gathering: music and the casual mixing of the sexes is banned. For this double transgression of the Islamist code, in a public square square the next day the female singer receives 40 lashes. As the woman (played by the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara) kneels and is whipped she lets forth an unforgettable howl of anguish and pain that becomes a discordant chant of defiance. (The music in the film is as beautiful as its imagery – an elegiac original score by Tunisian composer Amine Bouhafa, with snatches of songs by Fatoumata Diawara).

Timbuktu fight
Timbuktu: fight on the river

Central to the film is the story of the death of a cow affectionately named ‘GPS’, one of a herd belonging to the herdsman Kidane and managed by his young son. One day, as the herd is brought to the river for water, the cow becomes entangled in the nets of Amadou the fisherman who spears it to death. (Until the credits rolled with the assurance that ‘no animal was endangered during the making of this film’, I was convinced that this sequence was real; faked, it represents an astonishing piece of film-making – as does the ensuing fight scene with its tragic outcome). After Kidane’s gun goes off accidentally, Sissako and his cinematographer give us a breathtaking widescreen shot of Kidane stumbling across the river, fleeing the tragedy.

Timbuktu fleeing across the river
Timbuktu: the widescreen shot of Kidane fleeing across the river

Like all the other transgressions, Kidane’s accidental killing of Amadou ends up in a Sharia court presided over by a judge who belongs to the Islamic jihadists who have taken control of the city. In several scenes such as this one Sissako makes a point of emphasising that the Islamist fundamentalists do not originate from the Timbuktu area or speak any of the local languages: not only are they above the local inhabitants, imposing their ideology upon them; they are also completely outside the locals’ understanding. The need to translate and failures in communication seem to be central to Sissako’s portrayal of the alien nature of the jihadists’ brand of Islam.

Timbuktu jihadis and woman
Timbuktu: a woman is challenged by jihadis

The treatment of women by the jihadists and their unremitting misogyny is a central focus of Sissako’s film. A jihadist who wants a local girl for his bride expects no argument: the girl is his by right and is forced into marriage. A couple, buried to their necks in sand, are stoned to death for living together outside of marriage. Young women walking the alleyways alone are accosted constantly by the jihadis and ordered to cover themselves or get off the street.

However, my only reservation about this film concerns the way in which Sissako depicts the jihadis. I can see that his aim has been to avoid simplistic characterisation, and to understand them. He emphasises their hypocrisy: their obsession with their mobile phones, their secret smoking and debates about the merits of different footballers.  But at times the degree of empathy seems in danger of undermining his depiction of their petty totalitarianism and the viciousness of their code.

In an interview with the New York Times, Sissako argued that depicting your enemy as ridiculous renders him impotent:

To portray a jihadist as simply a bad guy, who does not in any way resemble me, who’s completely different, that’s not completely true.” The jihadist is, he says, is “a fragile being. And fragility is an element that can make anybody tip over into horror.

In a profile of Abderrahmane Sissako for Sight and Sound, Basia Lewandowska Cummings wrote:

If there’s a style or approach that links Sissako’s films together, it is his fragmentary storytelling, which allows him to broach difficult and at times dense and complex subject matter without presenting any grand conclusions. Timbuktu brings together interwoven stories of residents of the ancient Malian city – in recent years a restive region wracked by violence and Islamic fundamentalism. Here, he builds a portrait of daily life full of empathy and humanity, resulting in what is now known as “the film that dares to humanise jihadists”.

Despite this one reservation, Timbuktu remains for me a landmark of humanist film-making: a breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of a settled and tolerant culture overturned by fundamentalists. I will not forget the boys playing football without a ball, or Fatou’s howl of anguish as she is whipped for having been caught making music.

Interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, Abderrahmane Sissako said:

The world is wonderfully rich and diverse. It is what makes our humanity. We need to trust people, and avoid reducing them to things.

The music of Timbuktu


See also

2 thoughts on “Timbuktu: a stunning cry for freedom

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