October 19, 2015
A complex movie with multiplex characters but yet, a satirical expression of reality. Abderrahmane Sissako’ movie Timbuktu, makes you forget the traditional Western expression of fiction, while it leaves the viewers troubled with imagination as they try to figure out Sissako’s central theme.
The movie is set in the African city of Timbuktu Mali, where the revered traditional way of life as known by the inhabitants, faces challenge and repression by Jihadists, often from outside the country but with determination to impose a strict form of Sharia on the people.
Sissako features various scenes and characters in the movie, as he tries to present to his audience the life of a troubled nation. A major scene centers, around the family of a herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their 12-year-old daughter.
The family’s quiet way of life came to an end when an angry fisherman, killed Kidane’s cow called “GPS.” He confronts the fisherman and during a fracas that ensued, Kidane’s gun accidentally discharged killing the fisherman. Kidane claims that he meant no harm but despite his pleading, he was prosecuted by the Jihadist’s leadership and sentenced to death for the killing.
With the scene, Sissako questions the validity of such prosecution, while at the same time using the conflict between the fisherman and the herdsman to symbolize the social divide in Mali.The events also depicts and satirizes the brutal hypocrisy and self-contradictions of the extremists mostly foreigners, who occupied Timbuktu in 2012. These Jihadists from Libya did not speak the local language but yet, managed to impose their authority on the locals. They banned music, soccer, smoking, and demanded that women must cover their heads, wear gloves and not gather in the streets.
Despite the strict rules and while religious police are patrolling the streets looking for offenders, a commander and member of the religious police, sneaks a cigarette to smoke out of view in the desert and when the credibility of his action is questioned by a lower rank Jihadist, the commander dodged the question and diverted attention to arguments about soccer and the French national team.
With this scene, Sissako portrays the Islāmic fundamentalists as hypocrites and people who fail to practice what they preach. The extremists, desire to impose a strict form of Islam on the people of Timbuktu, however, they’re unwilling to abide by their own rule. Instead of living by example, they find ways to break the laws, while they severely punish locals for every small infraction even those unrelated to religion.
Sissako shows us another part, where a Jihadist came close to expressing his infatuation with Satima a married woman, though the Jihadist knew Islam forbids adultery. But yet in another place, a man and a woman were stoned to death for committing adultery. With both events, Sissako depicts how these ill educated extremists struggle with their own sexual desires, while they continue to lecture locals especially women on how to cover up their bodies and desist from adultery.
Elsewhere, young men are seen playing football when soccer has been banned. They run around the field mimicking the game with an invisible ball and when they saw two Jihadists passing by on a motorbike, they stopped playing and pretended to be exercising. With this scene, Sissako combines both satire and humor as he finds ways to entertain the audience. At the same time, he ridicules the Jihadists for their ignorance and draconian rule.
In one scene, Jihadists are shown chasing and shooting at a gazelle and in another part, they’re seen destroying masks and statues, a picture reminiscent of what present day ISIL and Al Qaeda are doing to ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria.
Sissako views the shooting as a predatory and oppressive way of silencing the people, while destruction of artifacts depicts a primitive group of fanatics in this case, the Islamists with no sense of preservation and need for protecting ancient monuments.
When a Jihadist asked for the hand of a woman in marriage and the offer is refused, he threatened to take her by force. When he does, the local Imam questions such authority under Islāmic law but was told by a commander that their interpretation of Islāmic law is the correct one.
With the scene, Sissako presents extremists as bullies willing to use force at the expense of the weak to achieve right, even when they know doing so is wrong. The events show, a fight between good and evil. On one side the extremists with a different ideology and religious principle, while on the other are moderates against extremism and harsh form of Islam.
The stoning death of the couple convicted of adultery, reveals the tragic side of extremism and using satire instead of crude demonization, Sissako shows the daily life of Timbuktu from the inhabitants’ perspective, while he condemns evil deeds of the merciless Jihadists, in front of the audience.
While Sissako unflinchingly shows the inhumanity of the Jihadists, he carefully portrays them as different from the bloodthirsty ISIL and Al Qaeda. In one part at the marketplace, two militias demand that a female fish seller wear gloves. The woman protested and asked how she is supposed to clean fish while wearing gloves. She was allowed to mount a defense and though, they believe she was right, she still got arrested.
When faced with resistance from the people, the militias are somewhat open to protest and allow the accused to raise his/her defensive argument though, the occupier’s interpretation of sharia always prevail. Here, Sissako wants the viewer to see the separation between the occupiers of Mali and the perpetrators of global terror, ISIL and Al Qaeda.
In Timbuktu, Sissako offers a harsh condemnation of Islāmic extremists who trampled on the rich culture and tradition of Mali. Using satire, he extends his criticism to extremists worldwide whose actions remain primitive and incompatible with civilized life.
Like many who saw the movie, I left the Majestic Theater confused and unable to figure out Sissako’s central theme. After much pondering, I concluded that the confusion is exactly as Sissako envisioned. He leaves the audience with complex settings and archetypal characters but denies them a main theme. Each viewer must find his/her own meaning and interpretation of this work of genius.
Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is an expert in general law, foreign relations and the United Nations. He is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment,’ ‘Criminal Law-Homicide’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available on Amazon. Follow on Twitter @san0670.