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Film Review | Timbuktu

Taking its cue from the occupation of the Malian city in 2012 (but swapping the Ansar Dine extremist group with ISIS for the film), the film shows us the ravages of occupation in increments, not the sensationalist Grand Guignol we’re fed by terrorists on a regular basis. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
22 July 2015, 10:18am
Not-so-just deserts: Mehdi A.G. Mohamed and Ibrahim Ahmed in Abderrahmane Sissako’s award-winning film Timbuktu
Not-so-just deserts: Mehdi A.G. Mohamed and Ibrahim Ahmed in Abderrahmane Sissako’s award-winning film Timbuktu
I’ll admit that my profession has a lot to answer for. In the international sphere, at least, the effect of the media can be as damaging as much as it is penetrating. A lot will always be made of the mass media’s propensity for sensationalism, though the public’s apparent hunger for the 24/7 churn of panic, violence and alarm all but demands such an approach to international affairs. 

But this chicken-and-egg scenario can’t disguise the upshot of all this: the rolling news tends to paralyze us into panic which in turn leads to indifference more often than pro-active action. 

And nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of the rise of Islamic terrorism over the past year or so, particularly when it comes to groups like the so-called Islamic State. Fully exploiting the international community’s weakness of grand media gestures, ISIS have gone one up on their predecessors by fully exploiting both traditional and digital media, instilling fear through public video executions, which inevitably end up going viral - a clear example of how a system we’re growing more used to with each passing day could be rigged for foul ends. 

But though these acts need to be given their due, and though the fear, panic and rage they may inspire is understandable and should be given its due, one sad fact in all this is that, by concentrating on the climactic culmination of the extremists’ mission - usually the summary execution of a Western hostage - we tend to forget that there’s a day-to-day dimension to their occupying strategy. One that - as a further indictment of the Western gaze - tends to be borne by other Muslims of a far more moderate religious inclination. 

This is however the main focus of Abderrahmane Sissako’s award-winning film Timbuktu. Taking its cue from the occupation of the Malian city in 2012 (but swapping the Ansar Dine extremist group with ISIS for the film), the film shows us the ravages of occupation in increments, not the sensationalist Grand Guignol we’re fed by terrorists on a regular basis. 

With no real fanfare, we see a small contingent of ISIS members gradually take over the city of Timbuktu. Their efforts appear halting, even comical at first - their attempts at imposing strict Sharia Law are either laughed off or deemed unworkable - by both the general populace and the moderate religious authorities - and neither do they appear to have the zeal necessary to apply their rule with the necessary conviction. 

But things appear to take a darker turn when a Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a peaceful cattleman and family man, is pushed to commit an act of violence. His fate appears to coincide with the Islamic group finally closing ranks, their initial fumbling giving way to an all-encompassing oppression. 

Inspired by the occupation of Timbuktu by the extremist group Ansar Dine back in 2012 (the city was eventually freed by French occupying forces), Sissako’s film deliberately distances the narrative away from the loud media panoply that accompanies anything related to ISIS - there is no shouting, no open bloodshed and no fetishised acts of violence on display (though its ritualized counterpart does, sadly, make itself known as the film progresses). This opens Sissako up to a degree of criticism: can you truly insulate groups like ISIS out of a wider context without losing something necessary in the process? Is it accurate to do so, or even responsible? 

A French-Mauritian production, Timbuktu could certainly be accused of at least partly aesthetisising the prospect of an Islamic takeover. The pristine desert setting, photographed to perfection by Sissako and his cinematographer Sofian El Fani, certainly “doesn’t help”, if we are to assume that this scenario should be depicted with grit and gravity. The experience is rounded off with a clutch of soulful performances, most notably from the fragile Ahmed, and Toulou Kiki, playing his stoic but determined wife.

But what Sissako’s approach in fact accomplishes is to draw us in and lead us in and inspire true empathy. The beauty of the surroundings cancels out the reaction that such a place is a sorry, far-flung place now beyond repair, which would therefore make any engagement on our part be an act of charity and nothing more. Not only is the city beautiful, but it’s also appears to function: religion is instructive, not punitive; gender roles are not in line with the West, but women have a voice and a key role in the social fabric; and simple pleasures like family life and playing music with your friends (subsequently outlawed by the occupying band) make it clear that though this is a different society from our own, it’s not an alien one.

This is the place that the extremists encroach upon, and there is something comically absurd, both in their own improvised attempts at jihad and in the way the quiet, fragile city appears to be so open, so vulnerable to such an imposition. Early on, Sissako nudges towards Four Lions territory, the incompetence and vague focus of the group almost matching the British-jihadist black comedy by Chris Morris from some years back. As members of the group, by turns, unsuccessfully try to film recruitment videos (a younger member is made to renounce his former rap music career on camera) and even fail to change gears on their land rover while negotiating the desert terrain, the temptation would be to simply laugh their attempts at occupation away. Surely these can’t be the same fundamentalists that inspire terror on a global scale?

But this is a disarming gesture in the real sense of the word: Sissako uses it to show just how vulnerable peaceful communities are to the cancer-like contagion of extremism. Though the inevitable violent up-shot of all this is shown at the end, what ironically cuts deeper is a more bureaucratic aspect to the group’s workings. 

A subplot involving the forced marriage of a local woman to one of the group’s footmen has its leader employing arbitrary logic - and, as has infamously been the case, equally selective use of Quranic scripture - to justify their actions to the community’s imam. The scene doesn’t have to show violence to be harrowing, particularly after we’ve seen clear examples of the group failing to live up to their own draconian standards. 

A coda to the central drama skirts too close to obscurity - there’s ambiguity, and then there’s ambiguity - but Sissako’s film nonetheless remains a sumptuous, important work. 

It may not present any clear-cut solutions to one of the pervasive anxieties of our time. But it does show how these situations are never black and white. Which could perhaps be the most sensible starting point towards a solution that we could manage at this point.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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