With beauty and compassion, Abderrahmane Sissako’s feature film Timbuktu tells the story of life under brutal Islamist rule. Beverly Andrews reflects on its message and the tragic tales it tells.
Timbuktu’s history is legendary. During the 12th century, it was a world-renowned centre for commerce and Islamic studies. Over the centuries, scholars throughout the world have used its historic libraries to trace the region’s illustrious past, while many in Africa view its historic importance as comparable to that of Rome. Because of the area’s cultural and historical importance, the world was shocked to see it threatened with complete destruction in 2012, when Islamist militants swept across northern Mali, imposing brutal control over its towns and peoples.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s stunning new feature Timbuktu traces this year-long occupation of the city in 2012 and, through fictionalised stories inspired by what really happened, documents the destruction left in its wake.
The tone of the film is set in the opening scene when we see militia members using beautiful ancient artefacts for target practice. To them, anything of beauty is seen as a threat to their radical interpretation of the Koran, an interpretation challenged early on in the film when the same militia members enter a mosque carrying loaded weapons. The town’s cleric admonishes them for not respecting the house of God, while they challenge him by saying they are there for jihad (holy war). The cleric smiles sadly and says that so is he, except that his jihad is that of internal transformation, not the irrational destruction of another society.
Through this scene and others, the interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, of faith is one of the key themes explored in Timbuktu, at a time when this has become an issue of fundamental importance throughout the region. Recently, this has been most clearly highlighted by the actions of the northern Nigerian group Boko Haram which, along with countless armed attacks and bombings, kidnapped around 200 school girls earlier in the year. As Sissako said in a recent interview, his hope is that “the film could help people understand. Not to change anything, but to give an insight into these themes and issues.”
Some of the clashes of religious interpretation are presented comically in the film, such as when the Islamist militants, having passed a ban against the playing or listening of music in a city renowned for its musicians, hear music coming from one of the town’s houses. They desperately try to locate its source only to discover that the music being sung is a religious hymn praising the prophet. They frantically call their commander on “their Western mobiles” to try to work out what to do. They need advice on whether because the music being sung is religious it is still prohibited.
Another comic/tragic moment comes when a young local musician is forced to give a filmed interview condemning Western music.
The boy tries several times to get the words out, words which have been written for him, but despite the militia commander demonstrating how the message should be said, the teenager simply cannot bring himself to say it. What is tragic though is that later on you see this same boy now carrying a weapon, a fully-fledged member of the militia. This tiny but significant incident shows the corrupting effect the invasion has on the younger generation of the town.