The writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako is one of the case study subjects in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book. He makes beautifully-constructed films – but only three in 12 years starting with Waiting For Happiness in 2002, followed by Bamako in 2006 and this latest film in competition at Cannes 2014. He has also been involved as a producer/executive producer on two films from the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun – Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006). Sissako and Haroun are the only current African directors to consistently produce films that feature at international festivals and are sold to the UK and US and other international territories. Other Francophone directors are often limited to a release in France. In Francophone Africa films are rarely seen by local audiences except via FESPACO, the biennial African film festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Both Sissako and Haroun produce films using French production support since the infrastructure for filmmaking in Mauritania and Chad is limited.
‘Timbuktu’ for audiences in Europe has historically been the signifier of ‘the most distant’ and ‘the most exotic’. More recently it has been the destination of music tourists heading for a festival of desert blues. In 2012 the Malian city was occupied by Tuareg rebels including jihadists who sought to impose Sharia law on the inhabitants of the city. Sissako’s film begins with local wooden carvings being used for target practice by jihadists and later it shows attempts to prevent local people playing music. Most of the film was actually shot in Mauritania but there are enough shots of the unique conical or pyramid-shaped structures used as mosques in Timbuktu to confirm the intended location.
Timbuktu has a distinctive narrative structure that mainly pits the story of what happens to a single Tuareg family living in the desert outside the city against the attempts by the jihadists to ‘police’ the activities of the inhabitants of one part of the city. The narration roams across different mini-stories before returning to the Tuareg family. Each of the separate stories focuses on one aspect of Sharia law – the ban on music, the need for women to cover themselves, the rules of marriage, the judicial procedures that produce severe sentences. The most shocking of these, the stoning to death of an unmarried couple, was a real event which formed the starting point for Sissako’s script (co-written by a young woman, Kessen Tall).
Despite the lack of ‘narrative drive’ as found in commercial cinema, Timbuktu is endlessly fascinating, shocking, emotionally moving and sometimes very funny. The narrative is richly textured and multi-layered and almost seems to define the concept of ‘global filmmaking’. The characters are carefully delineated in terms of ethnicity and personal background. Mali is a country with a dozen official languages although the two most used in official communications are Bambara and French. The jihadists use both of these to warn citizens of the new rules. Yet the jihadists themselves, many from Libya or with experience of training and fighting in that country, speak Arabic, French and English. However many can only speak one of these languages and others must interpret for them, sometimes in quite cumbersome ways. There are even language and ethnicity issues within the Tuareg communities (something I didn’t realise until research after the screening).
Apart from shock of the sickening violence of the stoning, the most controversial aspect of the film for some commentators is the way that Sissako ‘humanises’ some of the jihadists. They are a mixed group of the well-educated and urbane and the much less sophisticated. Their belief in a cause/mission is firmly held but they are chided by the local imam for their lack of knowledge about Islam and they enjoy in private what they forbid in public. For me one of the most compelling sequences occurs at a judicial hearing. The Tuareg ‘defendant’ doesn’t speak Arabic and his answers to questions have to be interpreted. The jihadist leader who acts as the Sharia law ‘magistrate’ listens carefully and writes everything down. He seems genuinely to care about what the defendant says and makes a reasoned judgment. When the defendant realises that he can’t pay the appropriate fine/compensation he accepts his fate because he believes in this Islamic procedure. This scene contrasts sharply with others where Sharia is forced on people for various ‘crimes’, e.g. the family of the young woman who is forced into marriage with a jihadist. Sissako stages both scenes with the same measured and seemingly detached eye – we are the ones who decide for ourselves what to think. This detachment is visualised in a spectacular sequence in which cinematographer Sofian El Fani pulls away from the action and allows it to play out in the widest long shot I’ve ever seen. On a CinemaScope screen this is breathtaking.
Parts of the film reminded me very much of Bamako, with its concerns for judicial procedures while ‘ordinary life’ carries on. Sissako’s detachment also allows him to present a surreal football match in which young men play a game without a ball (playing football has been banned). I read one review that criticised the scene in which young jihadists discuss (in French) who is the best footballer in the Champions League, suggesting that this was unrealistic. I have two objections to this. First it doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’. It can be ‘fantastic’ and still tell us something about the situation and the political discourse. Secondly, the footballers who play in the Champion’s League and the major national leagues in Europe are some of the best known celebrities across Africa. My view overall is that this is too complex a narrative to discuss in detail after a single viewing. I aim to watch it again – perhaps more than once. I have read comments by people who haven’t seen the film and think it would be too harrowing or depressing. I implore you to ignore them and get to see Timbuktu if you get the opportunity. This is a great film.
Press Kit from Le Pacte
More footage and a wonderful song by Fatoumata Diawara & Amine Bouhafa: