Film

'Timbuktu' Sends a Powerful Message About Jihadism

Timbuktu isn’t just a film about jihadism. It’s a film about the vibrant cultures jihadism can eradicate if it continues to spread.


Timbuktu

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed
Distributor: Cohen
Studio: Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision
Release date: 2015-06-23

Cinema’s most virtuous aspect is its ability to shine a light on different cultures. Whether documentary or narrative fiction, genre film or art-house experiment, movies take us to places we have never been, and would likely never be able to see without the camera.

This is the filmmaker’s privilege and burden. She has access to any location she desires, but when she chooses a particular location, she has an enormous responsibility to its people. Accurate cinematic depictions matter because they shape the audience’s perceptions of the world’s many different cultures. Abderrahmane Sissako understands this, and his latest film, Timbuktu, (2014) is his most compassionate to date.

A 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Timbuktu shows what happens when a peaceful town in West Africa is infiltrated by jihadists. In the film’s opening scenes, cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and their 12-year old shepherd Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) enjoy a peaceful existence. They live in the dunes just outside of Timbuktu, and are unaffected by the violence in the town.

Sissako and his editor Nadia Ben Rachid cut back and forth between the family and the inhabitants in Timbuktu. The townspeople suffer under the totalitarian control of jihadists, and are forced to follow strict Sharia law. Music, cigarettes, and football are forbidden. Women must cover their bodies with clothing. When the townspeople resist, they are punished. Some are stoned to death.

The irony is that the jihadists don’t follow many of their own rules. One jihadist, for example, is a smoker, and another group of jihadists argue over their favorite football teams. This absurdity is a reality. As viewers, we understand that it’s only a matter of time until the jihadists make their way to Kidane’s family.

The jihadists in the film are inspired by Ansar Dine, a militant group that wants to impose strict Sharia law across Mali. The purpose of the film is to show that peaceful Muslims are often the first victims of jihadism. As Sissako explains in an interview with The Guardian, “the media are interested when someone from France or Britain is taken hostage, but the townspeople who are hostages, no one’s really interested in.” Sissako, who identifies as a Muslim, denounces jihadism because it “makes Islam into something imaginary.” ("Timbuktu's director: why I dared to show hostage-taking jihadis in a new light", by Danny Leigh, 28 May 2015) Sissako goes into more detail about these issues in a 30-minute interview that was conducted at the New York Film Festival in 2014. Unfortunately, this interview is the only bonus feature on the Blu-ray.

Despite Sissako’s noble intentions, Jacques-Alain Bénisti, a right-wing mayor of a Paris suburb, tried to ban screenings of Timbuktu in Paris because he believes that the film “makes an apology for terrorism”. (""Timbuktu' Strikes a Nerve in France Post Charlie Hebdo Attack", by Elsa Keslassy, 23 January 2015) Bénisti was unsuccessful, but his attempt is indicative of a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West. Sissako wants Timbuktu to inform the West about Islam, but how can it when many in the West are unwilling to open their minds?

Sissako honors the people of Mali in a number of significant ways. For example, Kidane, Satima, Toya, and Issan are portrayed as a loving family. In one poignant scene, Kidane, Satima, and Toya engage in a singalong before bed. In another scene, Kidane consoles Issan after one of his cows is captured by a local fisherman. It’s clear that their bond is built on mutual respect and admiration, and before the jihadists arrive, they are full of life. Sissako sends a powerful message that the people of Mali have a strong sense of community and family values, and are not defined by violent militant groups.

Amine Bouhafa’s score pays homage to Mali’s rich musical heritage. A number of characters in the film are punished by the jihadists for making music, including one woman who receives 40 lashes for singing. As Sissako makes clear, not only are the jihadists suppressing the Malian people’s freedom and happiness, they’re also ridding them of their cultural customs. Timbuktu keeps these customs alive with a West African soundtrack that should appeal to any Ali Farke Touré fan.

Sissako also gives his female characters agency. When a jihadist tells a woman to wear gloves, for example, she challenges him to cut off her hands. In an interview with PopMatters, Sissako expresses his admiration for women, and claims that they are “more capable of revolting than men are” because they “have no cowardice.” ("Discovering the Essence of Fiction With 'Timbuktu' Director Abderrahmane Sissako", by Jose Solís, 2 February 2015) Sissako’s representation of women offers a different perspective on the human rights issue. While it’s true that women suffer in societies that adhere to strict Sharia law, some of them refuse to be subservient. Their courage is empowering.

Timbuktu became Mauritania’s first Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015, but West African cinema has long been worthy of celebration. Any discussion of the film’s relevant themes must not overlook its formal achievements. Sofian El Fani deservedly won the 2015 Cѐsar Award for his visually stunning cinematography. With wide shots and long takes, he showcases the beautiful West African landscape. Camels and cows roam freely through the Sahara desert, and Vitellaria paradoxa grow high. One sequence, in particular, occurs in a body of water as Kidane and a local fisherman argue over Issan’s captured cow, and it’s one of the most beautifully shot sequences in recent memory.

Sissako has close ties to Mali and Mauritania, as well as Russia and France. He has lived a cosmopolitan life. When you watch his films, however, you sense that he accepts his responsibility to the people of Mali, his father’s homeland, and Mauritania, his mother’s homeland. As a result, Timbuktu isn’t just a film about jihadism. It’s a film about the vibrant cultures jihadism can eradicate if it continues to spread.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.