It is difficult to unearth love, joy, and erotic charge in a story that begins with the killing of a man, includes capital punishment, and ends with the agonized features of an orphaned child. But this is what the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako does in Timbuktu, his account of the occupation of central Africa’s most storied city by jihadi fighters in 2012 and 2013. One comes away from Timbuktu (nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category) not only despising the tyranny of Islamic extremism, but also strangely buoyed by the sense that its exponents may be redeemable through the dignity and beauty of their victims. This stems from Sissako’s stubbornly optimistic view of human nature, and of our shared origins in a state of purity. When he was asked recently about his refusal to reduce the jihadists to mere brutes, he replied, “a man has been a child. He has been good.”
Quite apart from its artistic merits, Timbuktu is a topical film; it finds echo in events of the past year in Iraq and Syria. In early 2012, fighters from the radical, al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine swept across northern Mali, imposing a puritanical form of Sharia law as they went. By June, the group had gained outright control of Timbuktu and much of northern Mali, ultimately governing for nine months before it was driven out in a French-led intervention in early 2013. The film portrays the efforts of the jihadists to change the way people live in Timbuktu, an ancient center of learning and culture, just as ISIS have been doing in Raqqa, Mosul, and elsewhere.
In the hands of Sissako and his superb cadre of actors—many of whom are Mauritanian and Malian non-professionals—defiance of extremism is vested with such moral authority as to make the jihadists look risible. It has been declared illegal to smoke, to play football, to hang around in the streets. A game of soccer is duly held, without a ball–the players scamper about, tackling, intercepting, appealing to the referee. A fishwife refuses to wear gloves on the job. “Our parents raises us in honor, without wearing gloves,” she says as she is taken away. A young woman who has been caught singing in mixed company (a double crime) breaks convulsively into song while being publicly lashed.
At issue here is not simply tyranny and freedom; it is Islam versus an aberrant mutation. An old-school local imam rebukes the jihadists in the same measured tones in which all Sissako’s characters resist, recommending internal jihad, the fight against vanity and pride that is at the heart of mystical Islam. The justification that the jihadist commander gives after one of his men seizes a local girl—a rape that is legitimized through a “marriage” without her consent—is the classic riposte of the little person who has drunk power and believes himself to be omnipotent. “We are the guardians of all deeds,” he replies complacently to the imam’s protestations.
In some superb sequences toward the end of the film, Sissako makes a startling juxtaposition to show these moral and aesthetic extremes. A couple are about to be stoned to death—for adultery, we assume. The jihadists have buried them in the sand up to their chins before withdrawing a few paces and beginning to hurl their missiles—they thud into bone and tissue, making the viewer wince. Then Sissako cuts to another scene in the same low-rise, adobe-built, substantially medieval city, to a courtyard where a character named Zabou lives. Zabou is a one-woman resistance army. Her short hair is knotted with scraps of red cloth, her dark, luminous skin exudes a kind of madness, and when she walks unveiled around the town with a preferred rooster on her shoulder, spreading out her arms to obstruct the jihadists in their Toyota pickups they stop their moralizing and are silent.
Now Zabou lies on her daybed and watches one of the jihadists, a lean, intense North African, as he defies his own ideology and pirouettes around a lucky charm lying in the sand. It begins with a prostration, but then becomes a dance, slow, tense, slamming his heel into the floor, and then gradually as he unwinds and his arms sweep the sky, she too loosens on the daybed, running her hand over her stomach, running her eyes appreciatively over him. Finally, as he allows the sand to fall between his fingers, she closes her eyes. All this—the charm, the dance, the hints of an animist subculture running strongly under Islam, the unveiled woman luxuriating on a bed—is unutterably profane in the new Timbuktu. And then, as the scene’s classical score fades, we return to the execution ground and the two adulterers, their eyes closed and their heads tilted on broken necks, poking out of the sand.
These events swirl episodically around Sissako’s central narrative, which concerns the herdsman and musician Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their twelve-year-old daughter, Toya. Living in an encampment outside the town, the trio epitomize domestic harmony; they are gentle, loving, tactile, and content. But a tragic denouement seems assured from the moment Kidane kills a fisherman in an uncharacteristic rage over a dead cow, and is picked up by the jihadist police.
Sissako will give ultimate victory to his protagonists, but not in the usual cinematic fashion—by contriving an unlikely happy ending. Instead, he draws from these characters an ability to rise above tragedy, a victory of light over darkness that is notoriously hard to put across without seeming mawkish or insincere, but which director and actors manage flawlessly. One can only assume that the fine performances of the principals were facilitated by their intimate knowledge of the events that Timbuktu describes. (Layla Walet Mohamed, for example, who plays Toya, was discovered by the director in a Malian refugee camp in Mauritania). As Satima exhausts the few options that remain to obtain redress for her husband, the endgame approaches unstoppably. “I’m at peace with death,” Kidane tells the prosecutor he comes before (another surprisingly human jihadist). “We are all its children.” But he confesses, heartbreakingly, that he will miss one thing: “A face. My daughter’s face, my wife’s.”
Sissako’s film was actually filmed across the border in Mauritania, for while the jihadist fighters are long gone from Timbuktu, expelled by French parachutists in January 2013, some of their supporters remain, and making such a political film there would have been risky and difficult. The town he depicts is a small, sleepy place; the only motorized vehicle one sees with any regularity is the water-seller’s motorbike, laden with water drums, phut-phutting from one thirsty character to the next. And yet this smallness is belied by the worldly nature of the jihad, with Arabic, Tuareg, French, Bambara (a local language), and even English being spoken in the film, and a group of North African jihadists arguing over the respective merits of Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi (a gloriously off-the-wall discussion, as they belong to a radical movement that has banned football). The occupation of Timbuktu was an international affair, as are the invasions of swathes of Mesopotamia that are currently under ISIS control, and the principal front line in this war runs within Islam, as the great number of Muslims who have been killed by ISIS attests. Timbuktu speaks far beyond central Africa.