- Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako
Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s stunning recent film, explores the violence that took place during the invasion of northern Mali in 2012. It is a careful exploration of the cruelty that reminds us of the atrocities Malians experienced, and it is also a testament to their resistance. The film subtly raises many issues for the viewer to contemplate, from compassion, or the lack of it, to globalization and migrations. The violence of the invasion replicates and goes beyond the violence and repression of colonialism, deeply interfering in everyone’s daily lives, from cattle-herding Tuaregs to the settled population in Timbuktu. Sissako’s portrayal complicates the perception of the characters of the jihadists (although not their deeds) while also depicting fragments of life for Malians under occupation.
It would be useful, first, to think about Timbuktu in the context of three other depictions in African cinema of terrorists in the name of Islam. Yamina Bacher’s Rashida (2002) is a harrowing film that looks at the rise of terrorism in Algeria through the eyes of its protagonist, Rashida. The terrorists here are one-dimensional, frightening, shadowy young men whose motives are never revealed fully. Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (2012), from Morocco, is also an interesting portrait of terrorism, which it portrays as rooted in urban poverty and hopelessness as shown in the story of two young boys and the path that leads them toward becoming suicide bombers. Sissako’s nuanced portrayal of Islamic extremism, however, is closer to that of Mersak Allouache’s fine film The Repentant (2012), which has not received a release or much publicity in the U.S. The Repentant introduces us to a young man, Rachid, who has put down his gun in the Algerian government’s declared amnesty for former Islamic fighters. The film is a complex character study of this former fighter whose past unspeakable deeds are revealed only slowly as his current life entwines him with two victims of a terrorist act in which he was complicit.
Timbuktu has received far more attention than Sissako’s other films, reaching a much broader audience and winning numerous awards. Sissako also has talked about this film in greater detail than any of his previous films. One of the reasons that it has received so much attention is perhaps its condemnation of the 2012 invasion of Mali, a position few would argue [End Page 294] against. Sissako himself has stated numerous times that he made the film to bear witness to the violence and some of the horrific acts that took place. He has also stated that he wanted to show that the jihadists, as he refers to them, are also human beings like each one of us (Maheshwari 2015; Watershed 2015). It is perhaps the recognition of our common humanity that makes some of their acts even more chilling.
Sissako’s films have consistently depicted what Alireza Doostdar (2014) has called an “ecology of cruelty,” from the pain and alienation of migration, to the desperation that is the legacy of colonialism, to the devastating trail left behind by structural adjustment and the consequent growing inequality. They have also testified to the death of migrants, as in the bodies washed ashore in Heremakono (2002) and the flashes of the grueling trip across the desert to reach Europe in Bamako (2006). If anything, the depiction of the invasion of northern Mali is even more gruesome.
Timbuktu does not follow a classical linear narrative. Instead it is made up of different stories through which we get to know the central characters of Kidane, a Tuareg, his family members, and one of the three top jihadists, Abdelkerim. A mixture of close-ups and long shots of the Tuareg family convey the warm and tender relationships among Kidane, his wife, Satima, and their daughter, Toya. (Having a Tuareg family as the center of the film is itself a rarity in African cinema). We learn from Kidane that many who lived in the nearby tents have...