Timbuktu: a fragmentary set of parallel tales whose overall message is unclear

Abderrahmane Sissako, “Timbuktu” (2014)

Set in northern Mali some time after the downfall of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in late 2011, “Timbuktu” is a set of parallel tales of people’s lives in a rural village claimed by Islamic jihadist fighters. The director Sissako initially had wanted to make documentary films and much of “Timbuktu” has a very naturalistic setting and looks very much like a documentary. The film’s narrative is presented as a snapshot of what could be happening in any village located in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa where nomads, fisherfolk and farmers live, trade and discuss France’s fortunes in the FIFA World Cup with or without Zineddine Zidane.

The central figures in the film are a Tuareg herdsman, Kidane, and a surly Bambara-speaking fisherman, Amadou. Much of the film’s tragedy centres around these two men and their families. Early on we are introduced to Kidane’s wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their only child and daughter Toya who is almost a teenager. The couple have (sort of) adopted a boy, Issan, who herds Kidane’s cows together with the rest of their community’s cows. One day one of these cows, GPS, splashes too far into the river and is tangled up in Amadou’s nets. Amadou, fed up with the cows constantly blundering near his nets day after day, spears the cow dead. On hearing of the cow’s death, Kidane confronts Amadou and in spite of Satima’s advice to go unarmed and just talk to him calmly, gets into an argument with the fisherman. The two men end up fighting and, well, what do you know, Amadou is accidentally shot. Kidane flees in horror, leaving Amadou to die in agony. The jihadists in the village discover Amadou’s body, carry out their investigations and Kidane is subjected to narrowly interpreted Shari’a justice.

The rest of the film hangs off the story of Kidane: we discover that he and his family moved away from the village because two jihadists, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) and his driver Omar, were visiting Satima every day despite her being a married woman: a little too often then, for Satima and Kidane’s comfort. The friendship between Abdelkrim and Omar is played for laughs – Omar is trying to teach Abdelkrim to drive and knows about his smoking habit which, being haram, Abdelkrim is trying to hide from him – but also shows up the basic social inequality between them: Abdelkrim is an outsider, considerably older than Omar and supposedly more religious, yet Omar seems more knowledgeable about the ways of the world and how it works, and is constantly winning their games of one-upmanship.

There are other stories of the villagers: an eccentric lady dresses up in her finery and walks the streets to the amazement of the village children; four friends in their 20s meet surreptitiously in the evenings to play music and sing but are caught by the jihadists doing so and lashed publicly; and the village imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) defends the village’s customs and traditions against the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of the Qu’ran and Islam brought by the jihadists. More insidiously the jihadists force the villagers to give up playing soccer, execute a couple for committing adultery and compel local village beauty Safia to marry a man of their choice against her family and the village imam’s objections.

Although the film can be very absorbing and the child actors playing Toya and Issan are very appealing, the fragmented nature of the stories playing in parallel tells audiences very little about why the jihadists are able to march in unopposed by government authorities and take over the running of the village. An early scene in which the jihadists take someone hostage and which promises an interesting little story remains isolated from the rest of the film, its narrative and its development neglected. One imagines that Abdelkrim might scheme to get rid of Kidane and try to marry Satima himself and arrange Toya’s early marriage to boot but the potential conflict between the jihadi and the herders remains unexplored. The relationship between Amadou and his wife or family never gets off the ground and viewers have to assume the mean-spirited fisherman is related to a woman who while selling fish refuses to don gloves when ordered to do so by the jihadis. The way in which a narrow interpretation of Islam is able to corrode local custom and tradition is shown to good effect and also points up a number of contradictions that ground contemporary Wahhabi jihadism: it relies on modern technology and foreign money to survive and implant itself in a village that hitherto has tolerated and welcomed people speaking different languages and coming from different cultures and traditions.

The fatalism expressed by Kidane on learning of his fate for having killed Amadou is noble and in its own way defiant but is ultimately inadequate to defend Satima and Toya against the attentions of the jihadists. On the other hand, several jihadists act as if they joined their cause purely for selfish reasons and their ignorance of Islamic tradition and etiquette shows up in an early scene when they blunder into the village mosque in their shoes with their weapons hanging off them. If a person had to choose between learning Islam off Kidane or from the jihadists, I know which one of the men I’d recommend.

The desert landscape is a significant actor in the film as well: though it doesn’t figure in the parallel stories, it’s always present in the sand, the dust storms and the people’s dependence on water.

The fragmented nature of the film’s narratives and the minimal presentation in which dialogue is sparse and characters convey more feeling through subtle movements and changes in facial expression will be a puzzle to most viewers outside Mali and Mauritania (where the film was shot) wondering exactly what message/s “Timbuktu” is intended to communicate. While the film obviously riffs off on issues such as modernity-versus-tradition, old-versus-young, the battle of the sexes and the oppression of women by the narrow Wahhabi Islamic tradition brought by the jihadis, viewers are left to wonder what they’re supposed to think of the snapshot-like portrayal of a generic sub-Saharan village being invaded by malign forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the West. It is no surprise to learn that one of the jihadi fighters in the film has come all the way from Libya where since Colonel Ghaddafi’s overthrow, the land continues to lurch from one disaster to the next, politcal chaos reigns, people sink deeper into poverty and youngsters try to find meaning and purpose by joining jihadi fighters in Syria; and all of this activity receiving unspoken approval from NATO.

Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.