Africa take 2 – Jihadist control the ancient city of Timbuktu

Timbuktu – Abderrahmane Sissako (2014)

Though the film is Mauritanian and French funded, and directed by a Mauritanian director, its subject is primarily the city of Timbuktu, in neighbouring country, Mali. It was intended to be shot in Timbuktu, however, after months of advancements from jihadist group Asnar Dine (Defenders of the faith) a checkpoint near the airport was struck by a suicide bomber, just before the crew were set to begin filming. This meant the entire crew and production of the film had to move across the border into Mauritania. Sissako, alongside Sembene, is one of few filmmakers from Africa to reach a measure of international influence, having his previous work screened and nominated at Cannes, Timbuktu most notably though, after being nominated for both the 2014 Palme D’or (Alongside Mommy and Wild Tales) and the Academy award for best foreign language film.

Alike last weeks’ entry, Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’ depicts a community struggling to come to terms with change, yet in quite opposite circumstances. Unlike in Moolaade, this is not a change for good. The film was originally intended as a documentary, but with gunmen still around, knew it would be too dangerous, describing in an interview with The Guardian that “You can’t make a documentary where people aren’t free to speak. And the risk is that you make a film for the jihadists – because they’re the ones who are going to do the talking.” Instead, he created a fictional piece inspired by the events of summer 2012, Aguelhok, Northern Mali, in which a man and woman were abducted by Islamist group Ansar Dine, buried up to their necks and stoned to death.

The film focuses on one family, cattle-herder Kidane, his wife Satima and daughter Toya (and Issan, their shepherd), who live in isolation in the sand dunes near the city of Timbuktu. Conversations between the parents reveal the cause of their isolation, referring to their previous neighbours who packed and fled the area after the jihadist advancements. At the beginning of the film, the family live a somewhat undisturbed life (see both above and below) as opposed to the city dwellers, whose lives are also depicted in the film the lives, suffering under the control of the Jihadists who enforce Sharia law upon them, banning music, laughter, cigarettes and football, as well as enforcing new, stricter dress codes (instructing women to wear gloves and for men to roll up their trousers). Throughout the film though, the militants become increasingly involved in the family’s life, cars coming through the desert asking Satima to cover her hair, as she is half way through washing it and there was (before they arrived) nobody around for miles to see it.


The small plot in the film allows for a simple, documentary-like exploration of the city’s inhabitants, snapshots of the lives of humans being pushed to their limits whilst living under restrictive, oppressive laws. We see first hand the implementation of those laws, followed through with absurd sentences like flogging and stoning for playing music or playing football. Sissako ranges from scenes of violence, floggings and stoning, to quaint, heart-warming scenes like the one showing a group of children playing imaginary football with an invisible ball, due to the ban. His (and the footballing childrens) response to the violence of jihadists is to show a great sense of humanity. Members of the community fight back in what ways they can, most memorably shown through the market worker who refuses to wear the gloves that are being enforced upon her, because she needs to handle the fish she is selling, or the group of young people who resiliently play beautiful music amongst the oppression and fear. Fully aware, however, that their actions face consequences.


As well as the inhabitants, Sissko paints an unseen picture of the jihadists themselves. They, too, are only human. Whilst enforcing laws that ban cigarettes and football, the commander himself secretly takes drags of cigarettes whilst driving through the desert, and other militants talk about Zidane and Messi whilst on duty, posing the question of whether they themselves are even invested in what they preach. You can’t help but feel that they’re making it all up as they go along when, upon discovering the source of the music they were seeking, one asks another “Should I arrest them?” And in trial scenes everyone in the room, not just the detained civilians, seeming entirely unaware what punishment they’d be charged with, the judge seemingly deciding on the spot. Many scenes highlight both the strength of the civilians and the fragility and disorganisation and hypocrisy of the jihadists.

With shots of both beautiful locations and landscapes, and beautiful tales of humanity when threatened by radicalisation, the film is both quaint and subtle, yet striking, and above all, haunting. An important watch.


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