AiW Guest Sarah Jilani
Returning to London for its fourth year, the Royal African Society’s Film Africa 2014 festival brought a wealth of diverse voices from Africa and beyond in a celebration of past and present filmmaking from the continent. Closing the festival on Sunday evening (9th November) at the Institut Français was the latest offering from celebrated Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako: Timbuktu (2014).
Sissako is among the few sub-Saharan African directors including Senegalese Ousmane Sembène and Malian Souleymane Cissé to have garnered international (Western) acclaim. Prior to this 2014 Palm D’Or contender Timbuktu, his fictional documentary Bamako (2006), in which a mock trial takes place between the IMF and the Malian people, marked the emergence of themes such as globalisation, displacement and the failure of communication in his cinematic practice. In Bamako, song and visual language speak the truth while judicial and humanitarian discourse all but fails. For Sissako, resisting the methods of communication favourable to the world order is resisting the easy assimilation of suffering linked to economic globalisation, and his latest feature once again prefers to communicate hope and struggle through strikingly expressive music and cinematography.
Timbuktu takes up the havoc wreaked by the imposition of Sharia Law upon the simple lives of this ancient, spiritual city’s locals, addressing the devastating consequences of religious fundamentalism. It says nothing new of the ills of religious intolerance, yet it says it all with expansiveness of vision and spirituality. This prevents his film from becoming too polemical, but also gives it a scattered, pensive rhythm that says it has no need for a response of any kind – self-righteous outrage included – from his Western audiences.
We follow a number of the inhabitants and the jihadists; the latter roam the streets on mopeds with rifles slung over their shoulders, lazily barking out endless prohibitions through their megaphones: no smoking, no drinking, no football, and no adultery. We witness the harassment and ever-present threat of force that women living under Sharia law endure, the disproportionate ‘justice’ meted out for the smallest things, and the local imam’s distress at their treatment of the truly pious. Meanwhile, in a tent amongst the isolated dunes outside Timbuktu, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) is a simple cattle farmer living in domestic bliss with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter, Toya. Although they have stayed while their neighbours have fled, they live a fulfilling life of simple faith and closeness; Ahmed’s performance is soulful, while Kiki’s quiet strength and dignity mesmerises the viewer. They would border on symbols if it were not for Kidane’s own guilt in their impending doom, and for Sissako’s style, which prevents there being any ‘main’ characters or morally-simplistic melodrama.
Their doom comes in the form of jihadist judgement. Kidane’s cow is killed by a fisherman, and Kidane goes to talk to him armed, despite his wife’s counsel and his own better judgement; the seeds of distrust planted between neighbours by the tensions of everyday life under Sharia now run too deep. The pistol goes off accidentally as they fight, with tragic consequences, in a scene of magnificent visual poetry. In an extreme wide shot lasting many minutes, the blood-orange sky and mirror surface of the shallow river is broken only by the silhouettes of the two men. God-as-nature itself is the witness to their clash, and the scene has a tranquility and a clarity of morality that reflects the kind of faith Sissako seems to hold true. As the repercussions of this encounter unfold, he shows us an Islam that compels honesty and enables the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, whereas the jihadists know neither that kind of peace, nor can they claim god’s will in their actions.
Nonetheless, Sissako is not quick to demonise. The henchmen provide moments of whimsy when he grants them a balanced lens: they defend the merits of Zidane or Messi with greater vehemence than those of the Prophet, a younger recruit cannot renounce his rapper past, and the miscommunication of orders due to the many ethnic languages thinly veils Sissako’s jibe at the fundamentalists’ literal interpretation of Islam. Those in charge, however, are unyielding, cold and calculating patriarchs, and the sense that such crystallised dogma is more dangerous than any raving zealotry reaches a climax when a haunting but quick sequence shows a couple stoned to death. Just as harrowing is another scene where Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara), a local musician, sings through her tears as she is whipped for making music in her own home.
Sissako’s mastery over softer heartbreaking scenes, like a forbidden football match played with an imaginary ball and a mother having to silently consent under duress to marrying her daughter off, also help flesh out this tale in all its bitterness, humanity and hope. Timbuktu shows him in full maturity as a writer, a director and a critic of the world, while Amin Bouhafa’s original soundtrack speaks volumes when reason and compassion are intimidated into silence. A beautifully shot and empathetic film, it communicates a yearning for human dignity and peace that resonates well beyond its time and continent.
Sarah Jilani is a recent graduate of the Master of Studies in English (1900-Present) from the University of Oxford, and a BA (Hons) English from the University of York. Her primary research interests are anticolonial and resistance film and literature within the contexts of Indian and African independence periods. Her research has been published in Senses of Cinema (68, 2013) and Life Writing (11:4, 2014), with forthcoming publications from Postgraduate English (29, 2014) and Literature/Film Quarterly (43:2, 2015).