Everyone who pays any attention to cinema has at least heard of this by now, on account of the buzz, stellar reviews in France and the US alike, the Oscar nomination for best foreign language film (Mauritania’s submission) and its no less than eight César nominations, including best film (as the pic is French produced, it’s considered French here) and best director (Abderrahmane Sissako, who’s Mauritanian-Malian but lives in France). It’s a beautiful, powerful film, and understated, which adds to its force. As one knows, its subject is the jihadist (Ansar Eddine et al) takeover of Timbuktu in 2012—though the film is not situated in time and no organization is named (and, for security reasons, it was not shot in Timbuktu but in Oualata, Mauritania)—, the jihadists imposing their particular conception of Islamic law, and the destruction of a good part of the city’s architectural and historical patrimony. Anthropologist and northern Mali specialist Andrew Hernann has a good review of the film (dated February 9th) in the Africa Is a Country blog, “Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu complicates the Jihadist narrative,” which expresses many of the thoughts I had about it. He writes
Timbuktu, which opened in the United States on January 28, centers on a Tuareg family living in a tent on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Both honor and fatigue make the family reluctant to flee with their family and friends. This leaves them worried and lonely. It also makes them vulnerable to the jihadist regime, as well as fellow Timbuktians, who are equally frightened and on edge. But the film also highlights other residents—including locals and jihadists—as they negotiate the demands of the occupation.
Many film critics have lauded Timbuktu as a “visual masterpiece,” praising Sissako’s use of vast landscapes and captivating cityscapes. However, the cinematography accomplishes more than stunning images. Instead, it evokes the loneliness, confusion, desperation and sense of abandonment that so many Timbuktians experienced. Who could they rely upon and trust aside from the few who remained? How were residents to gauge the jihadists’ often conflicting motives?
Others critics have also applauded the film’s supposed comedic and satirical script. Such praise is somewhat misleading in my opinion. Timbuktu does not portray the jihadists—at least not all of them—as either purely ideological or bumbling buffoons. Many are depicted as critical thinkers in their own way. Others—(former) lovers of rap music and soccer—are depicted as youths who are way over their heads. Contrary to certain criticism following the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, this is not to suggest that Sissako is an apologist for extremism. Far from it. Instead, he depicts the jihadists as real, not as a caricature.
Sissako also demonstrates local resistance to shari’a. He includes a scene of a fishmonger critiquing new regulations that force her to wear gloves. And he includes another of lower-level jihadists searching for singers and guitar players. Some viewers and critics find these scenes amusing, and perhaps they were partially intended to be. Nonetheless, rules enforcing public veiling and prohibiting music were far from amusing to the Timbuktians with whom I worked in 2013. And as Sissako accurately illustrates, the jihadists brutally countered these local expressions of resistance.
To read all of Hernann’s review, go here. See also the review by NYU grad student Ethan Gates in TNR (February 9th), “Oscar-nominated ‘Timbuktu’ shows the terrors of life under Islamist extremism.”
One of my takeaways from the film was precisely the depiction of the jihadists not as a caricature of wild-eyed, bloodthirsty fanatics wreaking terror in the city—even though they are fanatics and who do terrorize—but rather as cold, determined men out to impose their vision of an Islamic order ruled by Shari’a law as they interpret it. In this respect, one notes their attachment to procedure and the law, though their knowledge of Islamic law is, to put it charitably, rudimentary. E.g. the scene where the protag Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed Pino) is hauled before the Shari’a “court” for having (unintentionally) killed the fisherman. He is assured that the “judge”—who, one may safely assume, had never set foot anywhere near Al-Azhar—is wise and just, but who is as inculte as the rest of his jihadist associates, making up the law as he goes along. The law is whatever the jihadists say it is.
Another takeaway was the incredulity of the Timbuktians—every last one a practicing Muslim—when confronted with the jihadists’ crackpot understanding of Islam: banning music, sports, and just about everything else, and the ordering of women to wear niqabs and gloves. As Andrew Hernann, relating his experiences in Timbuktu after the French army liberated the city in January 2013, writes in his review
[I]t’s important to consider that most Timbuktians themselves refused to identify the occupiers with Islam. Almost every time I referred to them as “jihadists” or “Islamists”, my friends would (sometimes angrily) correct me, saying, “No, these people know nothing about Islam. This is not Islam. They are terrorists, pure and simple.”
One notes Hernann’s remark about some of the young jihadists being in “way over their heads.” Hailing from various countries in West Africa, the Maghreb (jihadist commander Abdelkrim, played by actor Abel Jafri, is Algerian), and Europe, they don’t always speak a common language; thus the amusing scenes of the jihadist comrades trying to communicate with one another in broken English. As some appear nostalgic for music, football, and cigarettes—i.e. their pre-jihadist lives—one gets the feeling that at least a few among them could possibly waver in their ideological commitments and be lured back to the real world.
Though I ranked ‘Timbuku’ as one of the top films of 2014 it won’t be receiving my vote in either the Oscars or Césars. The Tuareg family at the center of the film is a little too idealized, both the family idyll and the Tuaregs more generally, who have long had a lofty stature in the French imaginaire (though the Malian Tuareg MNLA fighters have hardly been enfants de chœur, engaging in their share of bloodletting in recent years, as one is reminded in this critique of the film by Sabine Cessou in Rue89). Mais peu importe. The film is a must-see. Trailer is here.