Movie Review: Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako

Ruud Rating

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Though it was little noted in the United States, on April 3, the BBC reported that an Islamist jihadist rebel group in Mali called Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) had taken over the ancient city of Timbuktu and had imposed its own extreme fundamentalist version of sharia (Muslim law—literally “pathway”). This included the veiling of women, the stoning of adulterers, the mutilation of thieves, and the prohibition of such frivolities as smoking, music, and soccer. It was also announced that northern Mali, with its capital at Timbuktu, would secede from the nation of Mali and form its own independent government.

Timbuktu was a city of about 55,000 at the time of the takeover, but with the announcement of sharia nearly all of Timbuktu’s Christian population fled the city. By early June, a group of Timbuktu residents had formed an armed resistance, calling themselves the “Patriots’ Resistance Movement for the Liberation of Timbuktu.” The city was reclaimed on January 28, 2013, by Malian soldiers and their French allies, facing virtually no resistance from the jihadists. When Malian president Dioncounda Traoré visited the city five days later, he was met with ecstatic cheers.

In 2014, filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali’s northern neighbor Mauritania produced the film Timbuktu, set during this turbulent period. Acclaimed in Europe, it became the first Mauritanian film ever nominated for a “best foreign film” Oscar. The film premiered in the United States January 28, and has finally made it to Central Arkansas. This is a film you really should see if you are serious about films and if you are tired of the kind of dreck Hollywood is trying to push off on us this time of year. In the first place, it is a beautiful film to watch. As my wife said, it’s like National Geographic come to life.

But what Sissako does best in this brilliantly crafted film is put a human face on the civil war in Mali. Those very human faces belong to the cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their 12-year-old hired shepherd boy Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed). The family lives peacefully in the dunes outside of Timbuktu and are generally able to stay aloof from the repressive laws that disrupt the lives of those living in the city. In Timbuktu, the jihadist government establishes improvised courts issuing absurd proclamations that would be laughable if they did not so painfully affect human lives in the city. The invaders need layers of interpreters to make themselves intelligible to the natives of Timbuktu. They machine gun priceless archeological relics in the opening scenes of the movie, like most religious extremists having no respect for or interest in human culture, history, or education. Women are told they must wear socks and gloves in the heat of the Sahara. A group of young people are whipped with eighty lashes for singing in their own home. A couple is buried in the sand up to their necks and stoned to death for adultery.

Kidane and Satima debate whether to stay in their home or leave the area and go into exile as all of their neighbors have done. But Kidane is happy where he is and enjoys playing his guitar in his open tent under the stars. The theater audience, having seen what happens in Timbuktu to those who value joy, can only wish that he would follow his more realistic neighbors. The threat of the jihadists encroaching on Kidane’s pastoral world takes the very physical form of the Libyan jihadist Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), who drives out to visit Satima every day to ogle her while hypocritically telling her to cover her head. Just as he smokes on the sly while enforcing the law against it, he is party to the death sentence for adulterers while lusting for a married woman. It is Abdelkerim who puts a human face on the jihadists, and his foibles are not unsympathetic, but more than anything he personifies the fact that the invaders ae not really interested in religion, but rather in the power that they can claim in its name. This becomes even more apparent in a scene in the city in which one of the jihadists visits a young woman’s mother to ask permission to marry her, and when he is turned down, threatens to take her by force—which he does, stealing her in the middle of the night and marrying her by force, an act justified by the leaders of the jihad through tormented logic and blatant hypocrisy.

It is only a matter of time before Kidane must be drawn into this mess in which the lunatics are running the asylum. When the fisherman Amadou kills his favorite cow “G.P.S.” Kidane confronts him and a quarrel erupts, ending in the accidental death of the fisherman and putting Kidane into the hands of what passes for justice in Timbuktu. Nothing but tragedy can possible ensue, and the film ends on a note of hopelessness that would be unbearable if we didn’t know that the jihadists would be out of power soon.

Well, most of the American audience probably doesn’t know that, and it is a very difficult film to watch. Particularly when we know that there are various other places in the Arab world where such oppression occurs today. But Sissako’s film does two things that suggest the human spirit can transcend even the most irrational of oppressors. First, it shows an American audience that Islam does not have a single face: the Imam of the Timbuktu mosque (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), who acts as a kind of chorus figure throughout the film, seems to represent the majority of Muslims as he asks of the invaders, “Where is piety? Where is God in all this?” Secondly, the film shows the spirit of the people, symbolized by a group of the city’s children playing the forbidden game of soccer with an invisible ball as a silent protest against the invaders. Whatever happens, there is hope in the children—even in the anguished face of Kidane’s daughter Toya as she runs across the desert as the film fades out.

This film will not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a movie that would be well worth your while. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.