“Where’s leniency? Where’s forgiveness? Where’s piety? Where’s exchange? Where is God in all this?” ~ ‘Timbuktu’
Cinema’s most virtuous aspect is its ability to shine a light on different communities. Whether documentary or narrative fiction, genre film or art-house experiment, movies take us to places we have never been, and introduce us to people we would likely never be able to meet without the camera.
This is the filmmaker’s privilege and burden. She has access to any location she desires, but when she chooses a particular location, she has an enormous responsibility to its people. Cinematic depictions matter because they shape the audience’s perceptions of the world’s many diverse cultures. Abderrahmane Sissako comprehends this, and his latest film, Timbuktu, (2014) is his most compassionate to date.
A 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Timbuktu portrays a peaceful town in West Africa that is infiltrated by jihadists. In the opening scenes, cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their 12-year old shepherd Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) enjoy a serene existence. They live in the dunes just outside of Timbuktu, and are unaffected by the violence in the town.
Sissako and his editor Nadia Ben Rachid cut back and forth between this family and the inhabitants in Timbuktu. The townspeople suffer under the totalitarian control of jihadists and are forced to follow strict Sharia law. Music, cigarettes, and football are forbidden. Women must cover their bodies with clothing. When the townspeople resist, they are punished. Some are stoned to death. As viewers, we understand that it’s only a matter of time until the jihadists make their way to Kidane’s family.
The irony is that the jihadists don’t follow many of their own rules. One jihadist, for example, is a smoker, and another group of jihadists argue over their favorite football teams.
The jihadists in the film are inspired by Ansar Dine, a militant group that wants to impose strict Sharia law across Mali. The purpose of the film is to show that peaceful Muslims are often the first victims of jihadism. As Sissako explains in an interview with The Guardian, “the media are interested when someone from France or Britain is taken hostage, but the townspeople who are hostages, no one’s really interested in.” Sissako, who identifies as a Muslim, denounces jihadism because it “makes Islam into something imaginary.”
Despite Sissako’s noble intentions, Jacques-Alain Bénisti, a right-wing mayor of a Paris suburb, tried to ban screenings of Timbuktu in Paris because the film, in his view, makes an apology for terrorism. Bénisti was unsuccessful, but his attempt is indicative of a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West. Sissako wants Timbuktu to inform the West about Islam, but how can it when many in the West are unwilling to open their minds?
Timbuktu premiered at Cannes in 2014, one year before the November 2015 Paris attacks. Clearly, progress hasn’t been made. Europe has been struggling with increased Islamophobic sentiment for a while, resulting in repeated violent attacks against Muslims at mosques, refugee centers, and other perceived “safe spaces.” The popularity of Trumpism in the United States, and the implementation of the controversial Muslim Ban, sadly tells us that Islamophobia extends far beyond Europe and has become a global problem.
Is all hope lost? Not necessarily. The World Economic Forum highlights best practices for combating Islamophobia, and claims art can make a difference: “Art was also used in a number of cases…to challenge Islamophobic ideas,” the report concludes. Timbuktu surely applies and should be required viewing, for it has the power to change both hearts and minds.
In Timbuktu, Sissako honors the people of Mali in a number of significant ways. For example, Kidane, Satima, Toya, and Issan are portrayed as a loving family. In one poignant scene, Kidane, Satima, and Toya engage in a singalong before bed. In another scene, Kidane consoles Issan after one of his cows is captured by a local fisherman. It’s clear that their bond is built on mutual respect and admiration, and before the jihadists arrive, they are full of joy. Sissako sends a powerful message that the people of Mali have a strong sense of community and family values and are not defined by violent militant groups.
Amine Bouhafa’s score pays homage to Mali’s rich musical heritage. A number of characters in the film are punished by the jihadists for making music, including one woman who receives 40 lashes for singing. As Sissako makes clear, not only are the jihadists suppressing the Malian people’s freedom and happiness, they’re also ridding them of their cultural customs. Timbuktu keeps these customs alive with a West African soundtrack that should appeal to any Ali Farke Touré fan.
Sissako also gives his female characters agency. When a jihadist tells a woman to wear gloves, she challenges him to cut off her hands. In an interview with PopMatters, Sissako expresses his admiration for women, and claims that they are “more capable of revolting than men are” because they “have no cowardice.” Sissako’s representation of women offers a different perspective on the human rights issue. While it’s true that women suffer in societies that adhere to strict Sharia law, some of them refuse to be subservient. Their courage is empowering and challenges stereotypes.
Timbuktu became Mauritania’s first Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015. This achievement is long overdue. West African filmmakers have been churning out masterpieces for decades, including but not limited to Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967), Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi (1968), and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973).
Any discussion of the film’s relevant themes must not overlook its formal achievements. Sofian El Fani deservedly won the 2015 Cѐsar Award for his visually stunning cinematography. With wide shots and long takes, he showcases the beautiful West African landscape. Camels and cows roam freely through the Sahara Desert, and Vitellaria paradoxa grow high. One sequence, in particular, occurs in a body of water as Kidane and a local fisherman argue over Issan’s captured cow, and it’s one of the most beautifully shot sequences I’ve ever seen.
Sissako has close ties to Mali and Mauritania, as well as Russia and France. He has lived a cosmopolitan life. When you watch his films, however, you sense that he accepts his responsibility to the people of Mali, his father’s homeland, and Mauritania, his mother’s homeland. Timbuktu isn’t just a film about jihadism. It’s a film about the dynamic cultures jihadism can destroy if it continues to spread, cultures that are very much rooted in a religion too many in the West continue to demonize.
The article has been modified from a previous version published in PopMatters.