DIR: Abderrahmane Sissako • WRI: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall • PRO: Etienne Comar, Sylvie Pialat • DOP: Sofian El Fani • ED: Nadia Ben Rachid • DES: Sebastian Birchler • MUS: Amin Bouhafa • CAST: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki
For what seems to be a depressingly long time, the news media has been dominated by stories of extreme and barbaric acts of jihadist violence. While the primary focus presented to us in the news has been on the massacres and the destruction of historic site by groups such as Islamic State, what doesn’t get reported on is what life is like for ordinary citizens living under these new oppressive conditions. It is these people who provide the focus of the latest film by acclaimed Mauritanian writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako, who brings a sense of humanist poetry to his portrayal of life under occupation.
Taking its cue from a brief Islamist takeover in Northern Mali in 2012, Timbuktu looks at the immediate aftermath of the takeover as the Islamists drive around the streets of the ancient city on motorcycles, announcing through a megaphone the strict new rules being imposed onto the citizens. As these new rulers try to assert the authority, the residents attempt to continue with their lives as best they can. One of these is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder living in the outskirts of the city with his wife and daughter. While their neighbours have long fled the area, Kidane and his family have decided to stay, their isolation allowing them to have relative freedom compared to those in the city. The frequent visits of one of the jihadists, who holds an attraction to Kidane’s wife, indicate that the peace that Kidane and his family enjoys maybe numbered.
While it would be easy to portray the jihadists as one-note, monstrous villains, in fact I can be certain that many filmmakers would happily take this approach for reasons of simplicity, Sissako is more interested in examining the complexities of this group of jihadists. Sissako, particularly in the early stages of the film, highlight the absurdity of the ideology to an almost comic effect. The jihadists impose a series of strict rules upon the people, though not many of them are too bother to follow them themselves. They ban football, but some have conversations about who is better, Messi or Zidane? They ban smoking but some of them hide in sand dunes in order to have a sneaky ciggie. They ban music but are at a loss of what to do when they discover that one of the locals is playing music in order to praise Allah and the prophet. It all reaches a point when they decide to announce that they are to ban “any old thing”. It seems that these men are not fully convinced of their mission themselves, in one scene a French member of the group struggles to denounce his past as a rapper with any conviction while shooting a propaganda video, but seem content to continue regardless.
For all this absurdity however, we are always aware, by virtue of the fact that they are all heavily armed at all times, there is an danger lurking about and violence can strike at any moment. This danger is shown at the very beginning of the film, where a group of jihadists chase a gazelle in a pickup truck. As they fire their automatic weapons at the animal, one member of the group shouts “Don’t kill it, tire it out”, indicating the methods of their rule and how they view the people who are now in their control. Their aims are not religious purification; a local imam tells one member of the group that their jihad is unnecessary as a majority of the population are devout, but rather using religion as a means to hold power and control the populace. Their “tiring out” of the locals is done not with random acts of violence but through oppressive laws and public punishments. These violent punishments, which include public lashings for a group of young men and women who were singing and playing music together and, in the most horrifying image of the film, a couple who are accused of adultery and are stoned to death while being buried from the neck down, are shown briefly, adding to the power of the images.
For all the cruelty of this regime, the most powerful moments of the film come not from the act committed by the jihadist but rather the quiet resilience from the locals and the persistence of the human spirit. Sissako shows how people find their own way of holding on to a piece of their humanity during a time of dehumanisation. They include a woman who is sentenced to 40 lashings for singing, continues to sing through the pain and the tears, a fishmonger who allows herself to be arrested for refusing to wear gloves because they affect her ability to do her job and in the film’s most beautiful and poetic scene, a group of boys play football with a imaginary ball, highlighting the ridiculous nature of this new world.
What makes Timbuktu so powerful is Sissako’s reluctance to sensationalise the events that happen within the film, but to instead ask questions on how acts like this are possible in the first place. Sissako uses the film to examine the best and worst of humanity, avoiding any simplicity that would allow us easy answers. For Sissako, one gets a sense of the frustration he feels about what is happening, a frustration brought on by the fact, as seen in a image at the beginning of the film where the jihadists use traditional wood statues as targets for shooting practise, that once again an outside force have taken over and are determined to impose their way of life onto the people and destroy their ancient and traditional culture, a repetitive theme in that part of the world.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Timbuktu is released 29th May 2015