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Reviewed by:
  • Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Odile Cazenave (bio), Phyllis Taoua (bio), Alioune Sow (bio), and Kenneth Harrow (bio)
Abderrahmane Sissako, director. Timbuktu. Original title: Timbuktu, le chagrin des oiseaux. 2014. 97 minutes. In French, Bambara, Songhay, Tamashek, Arabic, and English. France/Mauritania. Worso Films.

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Odile Cazenave: Introduction

From the time it came out, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu has attracted considerable interest in the media. Nominated for a number of film awards such as Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, it was awarded seven Césars at the 2015 César Ceremony in France and was on the selection of films for the 2015 Fespaco Film Festival. While the media coverage was most favorable after the film was released in December 2014, and it was featured on the front cover of Le Monde and Libération the day after it won the César award, the critical reception started to change within a few days, to the point that there was talk of removing the film from Fespaco. While most critics followed one main line of attack—criticism of Sissako’s role in the Mauritanian government and his close relationship with the head of state, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz—a few critics focused on film technique. Hardly any addressed the film’s political analysis or the situation in northern Mali.

However, in his critical review of the film, titled “Frames of Resistance,” Manthia Diawara highlighted a crucial element: its poetic beauty. [End Page 268]

Sissako is less concerned with proposing a counter-discourse to the iniquities and liberticide brought on Timbuktu by the jihadists than he is with drawing new imaginaries with enough poetic power to enlist the spectator’s symbolic participation in taking Timbuktu back. In scene after scene, the film suggests that the jihadists are outsiders to the city. They speak a different language, dress differently, and carry guns even in the mosque, a holy place of peace and prayer. Instead of casting them as terrorists—the simplistic stereotype ubiquitous in mainstream narratives—Sissako paints them as a group of almost surreal characters good only at undermining the reputation of the religion they are supposed to be spreading.


Beyond that, the film bears Sissako’s recognizable signature: “a montage of independent but interpenetrating tableaux that together create a semantic structure far greater than the sum of its parts” (2015:75).

During our roundtable discussion at the 2015 ASA annual meeting, which took Timbuktu as a starting point, we also discussed issues such as media coverage, awards, and the critical reception of African films. Several critics argued that Timbuktu, first and foremost, targets European audiences and is presented essentially through an Orientalist perspective and the need to recontextualize Ansar Dine’s 2012 occupation of the north (see, e.g., Sellier 2015; Bourgeot 2014). If this is the case, we wondered, to what extent was the reception of the film in West Africa different from that in the West, and if it was different, what does this tell us?

On the other hand, can it be said that the film is too soft on Islamists? That it is too kind to Tuaregs? According to Bourgeot (2014), the film revolves around three main myths: the myth of the desert (and the beauty of the desert); the myth of the Tuareg, which is associated with the notion of freedom; and finally, the myth of nomadism and the white Tuareg in northern Mali. Several critics also pointed out that the film’s mechanisms of generating affect hinge on the viewers’ identification with the Tuareg family.

In general, the controversy over the film was fueled by the number of César Awards it received, which, according to many, was related to the date of its release, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyperkacher attacks, at a time when terrorism was on everyone’s mind and Mali was very much in the news.1

Given these different questions raised by the film, the renewed importance of Boko Haram, and the recurrent violence and attacks in Mali and elsewhere, our conversation following the ASA meeting aimed to revisit and further explore these points: to reflect on our original reception...


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