Timbuktu Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania / Fr 2014 ) Ibrahim Ahmed Viewed: Quad Cinema NYC USA; 2nd March 2015; Ticket:
Where to run….? Only to death.. ? ….and Allah?
Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’ opens and closes with running shots. The film opens with a mute tracking shot of a gazelle fleeing through desert scrub from the Ansar Dine (Islamist fundamentalists) fighters who have taken control of the Timbuktu area. In the final shot Toya, the herders’ daughter who we have just seen orphaned by the Ansar Dine, runs gasping with despair towards the camera.
Neither the gazelle nor Toya have any future, both are quarry. The gazelle’s future we know: it will be run down until exhausted and then have its throat slit. Toya’s future is also certain. With no one to protect her she will be captured and either killed or forcibly married to a fighter, one of whom has been circling her mother even when her mother was protected by her father Kadir. When Kadir is killed by Ansar Dine, Toya’s life has ended,: it is difficult to see any future for her.
I think it is this notion of the future that constitutes the question that inspires Sissako’s film.
And it is a question that is put into relief by one extraordinary shot in the middle of the film. Viewed from a promontory we see a big wide view of the river. Kasim has just had a fight in the river with the fisherman and accidently shot him. The river is shallow and slow moving, not more than a meter deep. On the right hand side of frame we see the prone body of the fisherman. Whilst to his left, Kadim exhausted wades across to the left hand side river bank away from the dying man, who staggers up for a few paces before his final collapse. The river flows through the increasing gap between the two men, the alive and the dead. The river flows through the shot opening up space for us to think about the nature of the forces that we have seen unleashed in the early part of the film, and wondering how these forces will be respond to this event: a killing.
I think this river shot is the key shot in the Timbuktu scenario. I think Sissako inserted as a key shot: the conjuction of the eternal and the flowing, the sometime terrifying vicissitudes of the everyday within which we have to live.
In ‘Timbuktu’ (the film) the people experience change in the very grain of their lives. But strangely enough not to the rhythm of life. The people are exemplified by the small family of herders, Kadim, Satima and Toya, about whom a significant section of the film revolves. They live under canvas with their small herd of cattle. Enriched with music that has become illicit their life, is rhythmic and honest. Sissako lets us see through them the intense beauty of beings integrated both with themselves and their environment. And almost from the first time we see them we know that they are doomed. Foredoomed by the merciless forces that have now entered their lives and will inevitably destroy them.
The people we see in ‘Timbuktu’ are only a small group but representative of the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed and smashed up by the emergence of a strain of ruthless intolerant fundamentalist Islam that has developed and advanced as a moral religious political and social force across huge swathes of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. ‘Timbuktu’ is an intimate portrayal of the forces at work in the particular context of Mali society and the dessert landscape which has formed and shaped human relations through many ages. But here as everywhere the question raised is what happens next? How will the living adopt and come to terms with life under a new and uncertain order. What resources are needed to go on living?
Sissako’s film is set in Timbuktu (but not shot in the town itself) and its surrounding countryside. The country landscape with its quality of the eternal, the townscape with its quality of an ancient and unchanging focus of life, are both subjected to brutal usurpation by alien forces. The town occupied, the countryside penetrated. The town people subject to an regime of intolerance imposed with religiously legitimised certainty and defined by extreme punishment. The country people where once they watched their animals the wind and the stars now watch out for the arrival of the new Masters the enforcers of the new order.
Sissako’s scenario captures the adaptations made by the people to the sudden imposition of series of absolute laws. In a series of surreal cameos we see people clinging to the outward form of previous enjoyments whilst having to forego their essence: ‘air’ music without music, football played without the ball. The odd illusion of the rhythm of life unchanged but everyting changed. The new order, proclaimed in the streets, is particularly aimed at the repression of women’s presence in the public domain, neither women’s hands nor their feet may be seen, socks and gloves have to be worn at all times. But the women represented by Sissako when threatened are not cowed. They return the gaze of the men as equals.
And it at this point that Sissako’s film seems to illuminate something about the way in which violent extremist groups interact and operate with captured populations. Their occupation centres on an ‘Allah’ discourse, and their claim to legitimate power by representing the will of ‘Allah’. Timbuktu is an ongoing and substantive discourse relating to the nature of Allah and Islam and the claim by groups like Ansar Dine to legitimise their power in relation to: people’s activities, the status of women and the practice of Sharia Law.
One of the opening scenes is a debate between an Imam of Timbuktu and a religious spokesmen for the new order. The Mullah simply cannot accept the extremist interpretation and practice of Islam: he does not recognise it for it is in essence without mercy. But the extremist position is that justice is literally for Allah, they simply carry out his will. The jihadist sentiment similar in portent to the words of the blood thirsty Christian Bishop, justifying massacre at the siege of Beziers: “God will recognise his own.”
So it is a Law without mercy that is practiced upon the people, a practice that is reminiscent of the early days of young zealot commissars touring the USSR bringing soviet ‘justice’ to the furthest reaches of the Empire. The new order the Ansar Dine do not shout bully or enforce in an individually expressive statement of power. Their justice is a quiet insistance. The extreme discourse mediates itself through practice of the ‘law’. The occupying militants are channels of the will of Allah. The brutality, the stoning the whipping the executions are carried through with silent resolve: legitimate sentences of Islamic law.
In ‘Timbuktu’ Sissako carefully exposes the claims of the Islamists to represent the pure practice of Islam. The extremists cannot answer the opposing point of view of the local Imam except by force. As the occupation proceeds to impose itself, cultural and racial splits are exposed. The occupiers whatever legitimacy they claim, can only impose their will through the application of legalised terror. The primacy of the sexual desires exposed among the young hoodlums as they forcibly take wives for themselves by right of conquest not consent. And in the central theme of the film, the Sharia law through which they claim legitimacy is itself shown to be a façade, a cover for hypocritical carnality.
The herds people, representitive of harmony and beauty are destroyed. The head of the small family, Kadir is sentanced to death for killing a man in a fight, perhaps accidently in self defence. At his ‘trial’ under Sharia, the commutation of the death sentence was set impossibly high by the demand (for thirty cattle when he only has seven) for blood money compensation he does not posess. As he cannot not meet the bloodmoney he must die. The impossible demand almost certainly stems from the extremist’s second in command’s desire to possess Kadir’s wife Satima. A desire not possible to fulfil as long as Satima is married to Kadir. Once Kadir is dead, then she and their daughter Toya can be taken.
Realising this and knowing that she has been betrayed by Ansar Dine exploitation of Sharia to get rid of her husband so that one of their commanders can take her, Satima joins her husband at his execution, immediately dieing with him in the hail of bullets that greet her arrival.
Sissako’s film has been accused of not being critical enough of the Islamist extremists. But Sissako is not making a Hollywood action movie. He also knows that depictions that misrepresent what happens are counterproductive. The militants are as they are, by their own lights lawful. Sissako has made a film that is in accordance with what is experienced: that extremist fundamentalism is partly a legitimacy issue, and that the ‘Allah’ discourse, and the corruption innate in claiming monopoly of truth and mercy, is where the extremists can be defeated.
Adrin Neatrour email@example.com