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,┬átrade 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.

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