In the opening scenes of Abderrahmane Sissako’s humanist drama Timbuktu, a group of traditional African statues is shot to pieces with machine guns. It’s a nice symbolic metaphor for the state of Sissako’s childhood country Mali, and how he feels its identity and traditions are trampled on, often by foreign feet. At the end of the film we see two young children running through the desert, completely lost, which is another sad reflection on the current state of the country. In the 90 minutes in between, it is clear the director has a deep love for the West-African country. In a very simple but effective way, often laced with humor that can border the absurdist (an image of two gun-carrying jihadists versus a full-laden donkey comes to mind), the director laments a country that has been taken over by radical Islam as well as the modern world. Sissako is never didactic about it though, always subtle. For example, a herdsman, whose work and that of his ancestors has probably remained unchanged for hundreds of years, naming one of his cows ‘GPS’ shows the way ‘our’ ways have deeply pervaded this ancient culture. As the film will say, often not for the better.
Mali has been an Islamic country since the 11th century, but has generally adhered to a moderate version of the religion. When in early 2012 Touareg insurgents occupied the Northern parts of the country (including Timbuktu) with support from various Islamist groups, the influence of the latter started being felt when they decided to impose sharia (Islamic) law on the region. Many of these groups employed people that were not even from Mali. Communication problems lie at the heart of quite a number of issues in the film, and the role of these outsiders who don’t speak the language is one of them (and in a country as originally tribal as well as colonial as Mali, ‘the’ language is often actually more than one). These problems are played out as humorous misunderstandings, but with a serious critical undertone. Sometimes Sissako employs lighthearted visual clues to underline his point. In one scene, the local police chief/Islamist jihad leader has four mobile telephones in front of him. Yet in an earlier scene, he still can’t understand one of his underlings calling him to report a murder. The incompetence of the jihadists is mocked more than once, but never in an obvious way. Their bumbling idiocy gives them a sympathetic side, as the director does not want to paint them as complete monsters. He sees the nuance where more heavyhanded directors may not have, which lends the film a warm, humanist tone.
But it’s not only the incompetence that is laid bare by Sissako, as he also slyly criticizes their hypocrisy. At one point, the Islamists ban football, yet they don’t refrain from arguing over who is the historically better team, the Barcelona of Lionel Messi or the Real Madrid of Zinedine Zidane. This is followed by a powerful scene in which local kids play a football game, but without the ball. They do it so realistically that you wonder if Sissako took the ball out in post-production, but it makes the scene both sad and funny at the same time.
As you can probably tell by now, the film is built up by a series of small vignettes, that are somewhat interconnected, at least in the general picture Sissako wants to paint. The centre that anchors the film is the story of herdsman Kidane, a nomad living with his wife and young daughter. He employs a local boy to tend his herd of cows, and one day one of them strays off-path (ironically, the aforementioned ‘GPS’) and destroys the nets of a local fisherman. The fisherman kills the cow, leading to Kidane taking a decision with tragic consequences under the instituted sharia law.
Abderrahmane Sissako is a mild man, so he rarely gets angry in his attacks on the people he clearly thinks have spoiled Mali. When he does, however, it comes in sharp, vicious bursts, like the stoning of two adulterers, or the lashing of a girl who was caught singing (because music is of course also forbidden). The previous scene in which the girl and a bunch of friends make music together and have a good time is lovely, not in the least because the girl has a very good voice, and the contrast with her singing at her lashing, to the beat of the lashes, is harsh. The film is critical of the Islamic hardline, and at times stingingly so, but it is certainly not critical of Islam itself, as Sissako also shows the nuanced face of Islam through a local imam who points out holes in the jihadists’ extremism. The film manages to balance satire and drama to create a touching image of a country and a people that are losing their identity and their traditions. And the director’s heart cries for it.