Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu follows his 2006 cinematic offering ‘Bamako’, and surely sets him as one of the most important directors in African cinema. The film begins in the desert following a rag-tag group of soldiers huddled onto the back of a pick-up truck in their attempts to shoot down a gazelle. This scene is immediately juxtaposed with the serene presence of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle-herder, enjoying the eye-catching view of the arid landscape whilst drinking tea with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Kidane has chosen to remain in the town even though all his friends and family have fled from the rebel group Ansar Dine which has captured the area. However the killing of his favoured cow (GPS) at the hands of a local fisherman sets off a chain of events charting his own destruction.
The film portrays the varying clashes between the rule of the new regime and the existing culture and traditions of the local populace. A case in point is the obduracy of a woman who sells fish in the street market and refuses to wear gloves, defying the regimes insistence on women covering their hands. The new social laws are monitored and enforced by a band of men, armed and sporting security jackets with the words ‘ Police de Islamique’ emblazoned on the back. They police the streets with a fiery vigilance constantly reminding the public – through broadcasts in Arabic and Bombara -of the new rules. The banning of music, singing, football, large congregations and smoking – to name but a few – are among some of the new sweeping commands that clash with local customs.
The cast of characters share many similarities and traits despite conflicting objectives. AbdelKerine (Abel Jafri) is the rebel leader, and not being fluent in local dialects is dependent on driver and translator Omar to get his message across. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) plays an important role as peaceful interlocutor. However his ability to bridge the grievances of the locals with the zealousness of the new regime gradually wanes. Both men exude a calm and thoughtful disposition, without undermining the intransigence of their respective – and opposing – ideas on policy and religion.
The film does well to capture the myriad of languages spoken with wonderful care and subtlety. Despite translating the new edicts into Bombara, Tamaseq and even French, compliance proves elusive. This is merely symptomatic of the ideational and cultural clashes, as even a seemingly straightforward conversation can require up to two translators. Such is the case when a man from the city centre approaches a woman for her daughter’s hand in marriage. His insistence, and the mother’s refusal, is told through the use of two translators. In the end however, the message is clear – he asks only as a formality, he expects to marry the daughter, and will dispense with niceties and forcefully pursue his intentions should the mother continue to refuse. The tensions demonstrate that language is a constituent feature of one’s cultural and political identity, and therefore integral to the legitimacy of a regime. In another setting, this could easily be NATO forces with a tenuous grasp over Farsi or Arabic struggling to win hearts and minds. Yet they know full well that ‘going native’ is ultimately counterproductive in their efforts to impose a new order.
Sissako has a real skill and intelligence in his ability to place tragedy alongside farcical humour. Despite the exhortations banning football, three police enforcers go back and forth on an issue which is likely debated in playgrounds, offices and bars the world over: Messi vs Zidane. Arguably the best scene in the entire film, masterfully directed and shot, shows a group of boys joyfully choreograph a game of football without a ball (a contraband under new laws). The game is played out to a tee, corners rehearsed with tight-man marking and jostling for space. There is even a goat performing the role of a streaker as it intrudes into the box just before a penalty kick is taken. As the boys notice the enforcers on a motorbike from afar, they quickly fall to the ground feigning stretches and exercises, a moment laced with unerring whimsy and comedy to thinly-mask the underlying tragedy; a scene undoubtedly etched into the memory of every viewer in its almost ineffable brilliance.
The film has an obvious poignancy and relevance with the advent of ISIL and current events in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the all too common tropes and images associated with ‘jihadist’ radicals are on full display: the AK-47 strapped across the shoulder and torso and the confessional video of a young rebel explaining his path to the cause. One of the most harrowing scenes depicts the public stoning of a couple to death based on actual events in 2012. Despite some attempts to accommodate the locals, the rebels are emboldened and all set in their ways about the moral laws governing their respective lives in the cosmos.
Abderrahmane Sissako held a Q&A session after the screening. He aptly noted that “Africa is a continent much talked and written about, but never really listened to”. Timbuktu, by providing a glimpse into the people and lives caught amidst the social and political upheavals, forces us to see and listen to those often ignored in the pursuit of our own interests.