19 November 2017

Timbuktu (2014)

Directed by: Abderrehmane Sissako
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki, 
Abel Jafri, Layla Walte Mohamed, 
Mehdi AG Mohamed, 
Fatoumata Diawara, Omar Haidara
Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noel,  
Adel Mahmoud Cherif, Salem Dendou, 
Cheik AG Emkani
‘Where is God in all this?’ questions the mild-mannered imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) of a jihadi when the latter tries to convince him that they're fighting a religious war. In an earlier scene, the imam had gently remonstrated with the jihadis when they enter a mosque with their shoes on and weapons in hand. His people have a right to pray in peace, he tells them. A woman who is selling fish is more antagonistic – ‘How can I sell fish with gloves on?’ She demands. ‘Here, cut off my hands.

All this comes much later. Timbuktu opens to a deceptively idyllic scene of a gazelle running silently across a landscape that looks like a painting. You admire the grace with which the animal runs. 
For a moment. Then, the silence is broken by the report of a rifle – the staccato firing is followed by the shot of an open jeep rising from behind the sand dunes. In it are armed men, their faces covered by turbans, shooting at the fleeing animal, the driver exhorting his companions to ‘don’t shoot, tire it’. What initially looked like the an exultation of freedom is revealed to be a flight for life.

As an allegory for the stark reality of a nation fleeing for its freedom from under the yoke of a repressive regime, one can’t get any clearer than that. The feeling of repression is underlined when the men wilfully destroy a row of ancient wood sculptures. 
When they reach the village, the men announce new rules – men should roll up their trouser legs; women should wear gloves and socks to cover their hands and feet. Music and sport are forbidden from now on. All this in addition to the arbitrary rules they have already imposed ever since they became the ipso facto rulers of the land.
Way up in the dunes near Timbuktu lives a Tuareg herdsman, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), along with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and his little daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). While aware of the changes that have come over their land – many of their neighbours have folded their tents and left – Kidane still finds pleasure in the roving hills, in the smiles and songs of his wife and daughter, the music from his guitar, and his affection for a little orphan boy, Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), who helps herd his cattle. 
Satima and Toya are aware of his fondness for the boy, and when Kidane suggests giving Issan the calf of his favourite cow, ‘GPS’, both Satima and Toya are delighted. In fact, says Toya, her father should give Issaan the entire herd.

When they are alone, Satima tells her husband that she's wary of the men who have invaded their peaceful land. No good can come of their rule, and perhaps they should leave as well, she tells him. However, Kidane is adamant – this is his land, and besides, they live so far away from the towns and villages. She’ll see – their neighbours will soon return.

Meanwhile, in town, the repression continues – a group of people have been arrested for singing; the woman is sentenced to 40 lashes for singing, and another 40 for being in the same room as a ‘strange’ man. A man and woman are sentenced to death by stoning for ‘adultery’ – they cohabited without being officially married.

Back near the dunes, GPS separates from the herd and before Issan can drive her back, she becomes entangled in someone’s fishing nets. The fisherman, Amadou (Omar Haidara) who had earlier warned Issan against letting the cows destroy his nets, is furious – and in a moment of anger...
Kidane is equally furious even as he tries to console the sobbing boy. Did his neighbour think the river belonged to him?  Despite Satima’s remonstrations, he picks up his revolver and strides off to confront his Amadou. Words lead to fisticuffs and in the mêlée, the revolver goes off, killing Amadou. 
Kidane is arrested, his case subject to the law of the Sharia.  

In following the killing of GPS and the subsequent tragic turn of events, Abderrahmane Sissako lays bare the wounds of the populace of an ancient African city once known for its trade, culture and Islamic scholarship under the yoke of religious terrorism. The puritanical and regressive regime turns Timbuktu into a land filled with fear and repression, where even the slightest infraction is meted harsh punishment.
Sissako took inspiration (if it can be called that) from a newspaper article of July 2012 – a man and woman from Aguelhok, Northern Mali, were abducted by the Ansar Dine, buried to their necks and stoned to death. Their crime? They had children out of wedlock. Six or seven months later, Sissako – born in Mauritania and brought up in Mali, began work on Timbuktu.

The film was originally planned as a documentary. However, as time went on, and the jihadis overran Mali, Sissako changed his mind, for he strongly believes that the West has forgotten Africa. Timbuktu is his attempt to show the world what his people are going through.   

While there are plenty of scenes where you smile (and even outright, laugh), you are uncomfortably aware that tragedy is not too far behind. 
Initially, one sees a bumbling group of men who are not very sure of their authority, never mind that they all carry guns. They are a rag-tag crew, composed of jihadis  from abroad and some local acolytes, and many of them aren't very sure they want to repudiate their past 'un-Islamic' lives. It is even more absurd when you realise that the jihadis snap out their orders in Arabic or French, while the people of Timbuktu speak Tamasheq or Bambara, and that sometimes the jihadis need translators amongst themselves.   

Timbuktu weaves several disparate strands – fully fleshed out minor characters step in and out of the narrative – in a beautiful tapestry of beauty and deliberate cruelty. What makes the latter even more effective is that the violence when it occurs is very quiet, very understated. 
When a jihadi proposes marriage (and he does so as his right) there is no thought in his mind that there might be a refusal – when that happens, he 'will come back', he says, ‘in a bad way’. That the misogyny is so casual makes it even more chilling. 
In that earlier scene I referred to, when the woman selling fish snaps, ‘No hands, no gloves’, you laugh at her impertinence. As the men take her away and you watch the other woman’s expression, you realise that that may just become her reality.
Sissako shows us the barbaric face of terror, sometimes in mirror images – the deliberate destruction of fragile tribal art is replicated in the brutal public stoning; the gazelle's dash towards freedom is duplicated in the striking climax– 
and sometimes in short scenes (the tragedy is no less for the shortness): the public lashing, a glimpse of a rifle inside a mosque – showing us what happens to an occupied land under a regressive regime that imposes a harsh interpretation of the Sharia. ‘We’re the guardian of all deeds,’ says the jihadi when the imam remonstrates that by marrying a woman against her will and that of her guardian, they have gone against the laws of Islam.   

Timbuktu is also the tale of a people who are pushed and pulled by opposing forces, as well as about their resistance to fundamentalism. The imam argues – unsuccessfully – against the jihadis’ strict decrees.
When a woman (Kettly Noel) is sentenced to a public lashing (for being a singer), she kneels down, tears pouring down her face, and continues to sing. When Kidane is arrested, he tells his captors that he will accept his punishment if they can truly say they are following Allah’s will. [It is clear that he does not think so.]
But while terror is normalized, it is also satirized – when the jihadists forbid the playing of football, the boys continue to play – with an imaginary ball. 

Sissako calls out the inherent hypocrisy of the jihadis' ‘rules’. They have banned all sport as un-Islamic, but they quarrel over the respective merits of Zidane and Messi between themselves, and debate France’s prospects in the World Cup. While Abdel Karim (Abel Jafri) forbids the use of tobacco in the village, he surreptitiously smokes behind the dunes. He visits Satami when Kidane is away (she pointedly remarks upon that), yet he wants her to cover her hair because 'it is indecent'. He needn't look at something that he finds indecent, Satami responds; and, by the way, 'A man who harasses a woman is impious.' It's a quiet rebuke of his version of their common religion.
However, Sissako also portrays the jihadis’ humanity – when Karim’s driver, Omar (Cheik AG Emakni), points out that everyone knows of his predilection for smoking, Karim looks amusingly sheepish. The jihadis are human, even if their actions are deplorable – the men enjoy each other’s company, laugh and joke together, struggle to give up smoking and to learn to drive, are unable to verbally repudiate their past music-loving lives as un-Islamic, and one of them even practices his dance in private. 
And you begin to realise that the fight against terrorism will only succeed when we begin to accept that the terrorists are people like us.

Make no mistake – Timbuktu is a disquieting film to sit through, and it is not ‘an apology for terrorism’ as the mayor of a French town claimed while banning the film. It is a quietly stirring tale that explores how the life of people change for the worse under a radical regime. It is also a visually stunning film (cinematography: Sofiane el Fani) that juxtaposes the beauty of a desert land with the violence that disintegrates its culture, the joys of daily routines with the tragedy of senseless violence, the simple faith of the people with the rabid dogma of the religious ideologues.
Directed with a light hand, Timbuktu is one of the few political films that point out that the worst victims of a radical ideology are often of the same religion as their oppressors – and demand that the world not forget the people who live the headlines we read. It is the voice of the moderate Muslim, those who are sick of the fundamendalists who have taken over their religion and presume to speak for them. Sissako’s gaze is uncompromising, remorseless and yet compassionate, and it is to his credit that his film whispers the truth instead of shouting it aloud. It is not any less powerful for doing so.

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