When Abderrahmane Sissako‘s Timbuktu hit screens around France, it had a modest start at French box office. But after winning Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize at Cannes last year, a remarkable seven Césars including Best Movie and Best Director and a nomination for Best Foreign Picture at this year’s Oscars (though it ultimately lost to Ida), the movie is now enjoying renewed popularity via word of mouth and an exceptionally long tenure in French cinemas. And now I’ve finally had the chance to see the film, and I understand the acclaim. Sissako’s movie deserves every one of its accolades.
Timbuktu is a rare film. It’s the kind of movie that embraces the artistic side of a titanic phenomenon: the extension of the Muslim world since the beginning of the 21st century. Sissako delivers a powerful and subtle war story. There isn’t any foreign army that swoops in at the eleventh hour; the focus is on the people of Timbuktu, Mali. The West African country was attacked by radical Muslims, mostly from Libya, in 2013. Timbuktu picks up some months before France finally decided to lead an army force to help Mali to keep its territorial integrity.
During the first part of the movie, we follow two parallel stories. On one side, we enter the perspective of Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his family. They’re members of the Tuareg community (a nomadic Muslim tribe temporarily based near the Niger river). His family represents resistance against human savagery; amidst conflict, they have a peaceful life where they raise cattle. On the other side the encroaching influence of religious fundamentalism seeps into the city of Timbuktu. As a consequence, AQIM terrorists establish Sharia law and forbid all kind of cultural hobbies, including soccer and playing music.
The basic plot of Sissako’s movie seems to paint a black and white distinction between the Tuareg family and dangerous extremism. Yet the director’s vision moves far beyond this dichotomy. When Kidane accidentally kills a fisherman, the AQIM and Tuareg stories begin to intersect as radical police arrest Kidane and bring him to jail in Timbuktu. As it should be all around the world, the Tuareg man has to answer to justice for his crime; unfortunately for him, he faces a system governed by religious fanaticism.
Humankind is the central topic of Sissako’s movie. The African director offers deep reflection on human nature as he examines groups of Muslims from all ends of the sociopolitical spectrum. Both Tuaregs and the AQIM people are Muslims (or pretend to be): they just execute their religions in different ways. For the director, Islam is clearly not to blame, the radicalization of some fundamentalists is. Actually, he shows us a surprisingly full portrait of AQIM. He subverts its image by humanizing the militants. But if you think he’s interested in generating sympathy for terrorists, think again. Sissako does everything to destroy the propagandized image the AQIM wants to show us.
The movie subverts their power through unexpected humor. Consider the scene where Sissako follows the “jihadist” who runs off to hide so he can smoke, or the militant he shows dancing in secret. How about the French terrorists lost in Timbuktu who debate soccer players like Messi or Zidane? These ironies culminate when a guy riding his motorcycle shouts all the forbidden activities out of his megaphone, but soon runs out of things to list.
The movie presents the extremists as pathetic. They say they’re acting in the name of Islam and the Prophet, but most of them aren’t religious people. They’re just lost in the desert and guided by their anger against the Occidental world. What a contrast compared to the Muslim Tuareg’s family who just live peacefully in a traditional nomadic way in the desert—an area they historically know!
Timbuktu also waxes poetic. I won’t soon forget seeing young African boys play soccer without a ball (as a result of the ban), or hearing the imam of Timbuktu’s mosque proclaim the true valor of Islam in the face of AQIM. In this moment, Sissako declares the misstep of the AQIM militants: they confuse the religion of Islam with extremist ideology. But wherever that poetry starts to shine, it’s clear that horror is not far behind; when a couple is caught playing music and singing inside their home, they are quickly thrown in jail.
What makes Timbuktu truly great is its aesthetic design. African landscapes take the fore throughout the movie. The light of the sun on Sahara’s sand and Timbuktu’s buildings perfectly contrasts with the blue sky. This allows Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani to create wonderful shots where you can identify characters’ silhouettes along the line of the horizon.
The technique also works in extreme close-up as well, as the unique desert light shines on characters’ faces. At the beginning of the movie, we can read the beautiful serenity as the sun reflects in the Tuaregs’ eyes, contrasting directly with the dark anger of the fanatics. Sissako and El Fani don’t merely want to communicate emotion; they want us to enter into these characters’ souls.
Indeed Sissako, who studied cinema at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow in the 80s before moving to France a decade later, always knows where to put the camera. My favorite example is a very wide shot of the Niger river at sunset. On the left side of the screen, a Tuareg man runs away from his crime; on the right side, a dying man tries to crawl out of the water to survive. This framing demonstrates how an initial misunderstanding has led to a crime that the culprit doesn’t foresee. This shot is a good metaphor for AQIM, who forego their humanity in the name of a religion they don’t understand.
This is why Timbuktu is a masterpiece (a world I rarely use). Sissako has made an important movie that reveals the true nature of humanity. We all have self-destructive tendencies; knowledge of humankind and its complexities is certainly the best weapon against them. And I definitively fit with Sissako’s way to talk about extremists who have nothing in common with the greater Muslim population. Humanizing these fundamentalists is, ironically, the best way to show them for what they really are: pathetic ideologues.
Verdict: Movie Win