One of the major faults in Western media is its habit of reducing complex histories and events to simple terms such as ‘terrorist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘Muslim.’ As Edward W Said wrote years ago, there is no other group that one can denigrate as totally and fundamentally as the Muslim or Arab without attracting outrage with one’s own peers. This inhumane telling and retelling of complex human tragedies is countered somewhat by Abderrahmane Sissako and his latest film, Timbuktu.
Set in a small town near Timbuktu, the film charts the changes that occur after jihadists have infiltrated the town and almost immediately lay down a whole range of oppressive laws. The town try to cling onto normality, but things inevitably come to a head when some local kids play music after nightfall and when a local dispute develops between two rural families.
Sissako’s strategy is clear from the opening minutes of the film. Opening with an ISIS flag fluttering while a crowd of gun-toting jihadis in a jeep flying across the desert trying to machine-gun a single, fleeing deer, the film then moves on to show a prisoner sentenced to death by the group being given some medicine. The contrast is clear and displays a complex view of evil and humanity intertwined. Sissako is not out to make people who are portrayed as monsters everywhere else look like monsters, but neither is he going to ignore their very real evil. The film then works as a kind of humanist reportage rather than a simplifying narrative of evil monsters and good innocents. The film will frequently present acts of violence – violence from both the invading terrorists and from the film’s supposed innocents – from a fairly balanced perspective. In this film, violence is not good or bad, positive or negative, but instead merely what it is – damaging, empty, depressing.
Obviously, the film is deeply opposed to the actions of these terrorists, and we see frequent displays of total cruelty – from stonings to forced marriages carried out through open threats of violence – and we see the stoic or outraged reactions of the local population. The film is not an apologia for terrorists as some have dubbed it – but that does not mean that the terrorists cannot be portrayed as what they are – human beings, conflicted, confused, self-serving, regretful. There is one fantastic moment in which the commanding terrorist Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) makes a house call on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and finds only his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) busy at work. He tries to make small talk and the woman ignores him – he lingers, defeated and powerless. It is a threatening scene but it is also a scene eloquent of the kind of pain and propaganda that sets people wholly against each other.
Indeed, the extremism of the jihadists presented here is not matched with any particular organisational flair. It is clear from the beginning that these occupiers have little work to do in the place that they have occupied. Many of them are foreign and require assistance in communicating with the local population, while others stand bewildered at one woman’s unapologetic objections to an unworkable diktat. They are bumblers – sneaking cigarettes and trying to drive a stick shift – and fundamentally human. This is the overarching critique within the film then, that one’s fundamentalism can force one into opposition with one’s own better nature. This point is driven even further home in the confrontations between the extremism of the occupiers and the common sense and forgiving Islam of a local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), whose faith shows the occupiers’ for fools and hypocrites.
That said, the film is a deeply angry work, angry both at the fact that this kind of thing is going on in Africa and that it is so badly unrepresented in our press. But Sissako is too good a filmmaker to merely vent his anger. His critiques here are deeply felt, but drawn in human terms and, hence, undeniable. The primary focus of the film on the local population and the effects that this occupation has on them. The performances, from largely non-professional actors, are fantastic and convey the real world suffering at the heart of the film. The film is open to all of the vagaries of the human experience and Sissako shows the true inhumanity of the occupier's rules by the fact that both the innocent and the guilty are punished alike, human experience pruned of its complications to fit a fundamentalist narrative.
Ultimately, as the film’s narrative plays out, the film reveals itself to be a strong statement for common sense and moderacy – the devices it uses are a true and eloquent examination of fear and pain. As the final images go through their tragic course – reflecting with a saddening inevitably the deer chase of the film’s opening – the film cuts to black – the point has been made, the pain and the suffering has been shown, and Sissako knows that there is no need to show any more horror, the idea is enough. It is a stunning ending to a stunningly moral work.