Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Starring Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri and Toulou Kiki
On general release in the UK from 29 May 2015
A gazelle runs through a storm of gunfire pursued by a group of men in a jeep. “Tire it!” one of them screams. They are like out of control children – or Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels.
The thought put me in mind of Swift. And so in turn, while leaving the cinema where I had watched Timbuktu, I found myself wondering whether it qualified as satire. Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest film, nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language film category and honoured with seven Césars in France, certainly has no sympathy for the fundamentalists it depicts. Sissako felt compelled to write Timbuktu after seeing a newsreel of the occupation of the Malian city by the Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist group linked to al-Qaeda, in 2012-13. The footage showed two people, a man and a woman, buried up to their necks in preparation for being stoned to death for fornication. This atrocity is recreated in Timbuktu.
It is easy for uninformed non-Muslims to assume that hardliners are representative of all Muslim opinion, but Sissako’s film renders any such thought impossible. Timbuktu takes us inside a city occupied by those whose claim to legitimacy is undermined by the brutality with which they enforce their rule. In an early scene, they force a female fish-seller at gunpoint to wear gloves and socks. When she refuses, they take her away; she seems to know she will not be coming back. In another scene, they arrest a guitarist and the woman who sings alongside him, sentencing each to 80 lashes as punishment for the sin of making music. We sense they are lucky to escape with their lives. (The woman is played by Malian actor and singer Fatoumata Diawara, whose sublime voice is one of many reasons for seeking out this film.)
Although the jihadists declare the supremacy of Sharia, they undermine themselves by their hypocrisy. They forbid smoking in the city but sneak off for a quiet cigarette whenever possible. They ban football but quarrel about World Cup matches they have watched on television. They denounce the rest of the world from the back of their sports utility vehicles. They take a puritanical view of sex but force themselves on local women. They are, as Sissako shows us, all too human in their absolutism, their standards so exalted that, in their exhibitionistic self-righteousness, they could never live up to them.
If exaggeration were involved, Timbuktu would be a kind of satire, but from what I can discover, this is virtually reportage. In one scene, the Islamists are shown using local artworks – statues of female figures – for target practice. When the Ansar Dine occupied Timbuktu in 2012 they also engaged in a form of cultural revolution, demolishing the centuries-old shrines and tombs of Sufi saints. These acts echoed the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, hailed by cheerleader-general Mullah Mohammed Omar with the words, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”
Madmen like Omar would have us believe them exemplars of their religion but in several important scenes Sissako proves that to be self-important claptrap. Early in the film the invaders break into a mosque armed with machine-guns.
“You can’t wear shoes and carry guns in the house of God,” protests the imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif).
“But we can,” returns the doltish burble, “we’re doing jihad.”
It is a tense, terrifying exchange, in which the holy man risks his life attempting to persuade armed soldiers to lay down their weapons. “Where is piety?’ he asks them. “Where is God in all this?” It is a question to which they have no answer.
The film’s central narrative involves a Tuareg goat and cattle herder, Kidane (played by Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives in an open tent outside the city with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and their adopted son Issan (Mehdi A. G. Mohamed). Theirs is the only remaining tent of many that once covered the dunes, their neighbours having long fled the madness of occupation. Outside the city, they enjoy freedoms denied the inhabitants of Timbuktu: Kidane strums a guitar as they lie together at night, watching the sky; Satima does not cover her head, nor wear socks or gloves.
The extremists circle them like feral dogs. By day Satima and Toya are visited by Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), the most asinine of the jihadists, a braying donkey with the face of a man, who flirts with Satima while ordering that she cover her head. “It’s indecent,” he declares. When she defies him with the observation that he makes housecalls only when her husband is away, he storms off and fires his machine-gun into the dunes. It is a promise that something terrible is in store.
The drama unfolds with the nauseous inevitability associated with tragedy. Timbuktu is, from that perspective, an old-fashioned film – about victims of injustice. It shows (in case we needed reminding) that all tyrannies are in essence the same, their instability guaranteed by dependence on brute force. What the film offers as new is its concentration on current events. Although it is set in Mali in 2012, it tells a story that continues: Al-Shabaab is terrorising Malians as I write, while similar groups rampage across Africa and the Middle East.
Some reviewers have argued that the film’s achievement is to paint the human face of terrorism. That thought was apparently in the mind of Jacques-Alain Bénisti, mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, who (despite having not seen it) argued it would incite jihadism in the Paris suburbs and promptly banned it from his local cinema. His toy-theatre logic was almost – though not quite – as nutty as his claim that legalisation of same-sex marriage was the same as legalisation of rape, and he was eventually obliged to back down. It would take the genius of Swift adequately to expose the idiocy of those who decree the burning of films, plays and novels they have not seen or read. And the irony was that in prohibiting Timbuktu, Bénisti acted in the same way as the hardliners it portrays.
Anyone who, having watched Sissako’s film, wants to join the ranks of the holy warriors, has clearly misunderstood it. It is true that its AK47-toting jihadists are all too human in their failings – ignorant, arrogant and self-interested. And Sissako does not glorify them.
Sissako’s achievement is his meticulous, nuanced portrait of the victims. Kidane and his family emerge out of the lyrical beauty with which cinematographer Sofian El Fani drenches the Sahara, especially in night-time scenes. Each steps out of that visionary world to learn the hardest of lessons: how to face death when all hope of redemption has been removed. Timbuktu is, finally, about how to die with love in one’s heart regardless of the circumstances. There’s nothing sentimental about this. As his characters stare into the barrel of a loaded gun, Sissako is as steel-eyed as they are, bringing us into perfect alignment with their unaffected nobility. That is why Timbuktu has been hailed, rightly, as a masterpiece, and why you will continue to reflect on it long after you have left the cinema.
Duncan Wu is professor of English at Georgetown University.