Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu played Wednesday and Thursday at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Cohen Media Group will release the film theatrically early next year.
A haunting warning cry from a great North African director about the jihadi invasion of Mali, Timbuktu is a message the rest of the world can’t afford to ignore.
As he did in Bamako, which was about the World Bank, writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako highlights the harm done by an institution (in this case, the arm of jihadism that is bent on creating an Islamist state) by focusing on its effect on one family. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle farmer, and his beloved wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) live on the outskirts of Timbuktu, in a peaceful stretch of the desert. They don’t have much—Kidane’s herd consists of just eight cattle, and they go everywhere on foot. But they don’t seem to want for much of anything either, except the peace of mind, and the neighbors, that fled as the jihadists advanced.
Sissako, who split his time as a child between his father’s homeland, Mali, and his mother’s, Mauritania, brings an insider’s perspective that enriches the story in many ways, starting with its depiction of the jihadists as real people, not just terrifying figures in black jeeps (though they are that, too). Most are from nearby countries, and they have a lot in common with the peaceful, tolerant Malians, even if they’re sworn to forswear some of those things, like their love of soccer. There are various degrees of fanaticism within the small group, which includes a young man who keeps stumbling over his words as he tries to shoot a recruitment video, and a kind-faced older man who sneaks cigarettes in the desert, though smoking is one of the many forbidden things.
Yet despite their humanity—or maybe because of it—the jihadists crash into Timbuktu’s idyll like a stone through a window. A row of ancient African figurines and masks they shoot up at the start of the film lie in the sand like so many mutilated bodies, a foreshadowing of killings to come. But Sissako is ultimately less interested in the terrible violence the jihadists sometimes inflict than in the many smaller humiliations they impose—and the heroic acts of defiance that often greet them. The true story of a couple stoned to death that first inspired the director to make the film winds up as just two short shots, while much more time is devoted to brave acts of resistance, most of them committed by women. A fish seller who is told by the jihadists to wear gloves while she works, also based on a real woman, is particularly bold: She refuses, saying she’s had enough of their rules, and then holds out her arms and a long knife. “You want to cut off my hands?” she asks. “Go ahead.” Equally moving is the woman arrested for singing (music is forbidden) who breaks into song as she is whipped, her plaintive tune turning a public humiliation into a moving act of defiance.
Sissako also delineates differences between Islam as Timbuktu’s cultured imam practices it and the harsh sharia vision of the jihadists. Sometimes the imam himself speaks for his faith, gently but firmly urging the jihadists to stop their intimidation and violence and insisting that they are misinterpreting the Quran. “Where’s leniency? Where’s forgiveness? […] Where is God in all this?” he asks. Sometimes that difference is played out in scenes that need no explication, as when a group of jihadists track down the forbidden sounds of music one night—and realizes that it is coming from the mosque, where people are singing in praise of God. Perplexed, one of the young men calls their leader for advice. “Should we arrest them?” he asks.
Sissako cuts there, leaving us to ponder the question rather than focusing on whatever happened next. That cut is typical of the director’s deft touch. When a jihadist guard calls Satima to let her know that her husband is under arrest, for example, we don’t hear the conversation because we don’t need to; we just hear her say hello and then see her and Toya comforting one another.
When so many movies these days are overlong and bloated with unnecessary exposition or gratuitous violence, Timbuktu’s understated eloquence is a form of cinematic grace.