The title of Abderrahmane Sissako’s film may lead you to think of some remote or far flung realm, but the name Timbuktu belongs to a real city in West Africa. That city, with sand ever-present, is the setting for a religious and political struggle that, though violent at times, reveals a people’s unbeatable spirit.
The Malian city of Timbuktu, once part of both the Ghanian and the French empires, sits south of Algeria and borders the expanding Sahara. This location was pivotal in the old world, and Timbuktu being a trade centre became popular — so popular that to Westerners Timbuktu came to represent a far off place. Today it remains rich in history and gold; but in 2012 religious fundamentalists controlled the city, using violence and intimidation to instill their brand of Islam.
Sissako’s film covers this occupied period, which ended a year later with France’s help. Despite the end of the occupation, however, Mali’s fight against fundamentalists continues further north, making the film co-written by the Mauritanian director and Kessan Tall valuable to Malians and to outsiders, for its critical look at life under extremist rule.
Speaking to the media about the movie at the Moscow International Film Festival, Sissako, who studied film-making in Russia, said it was inspired by news of the court-sanctioned stoning death of an unmarried couple convicted of fornication in 2012 in the Malian town of Aguelhok. He recalls that the story of their death was overshadowed by the IPhone 4 release, and at the time caused him to think, “the world is deeply ill.”
In the film he presents that horrific incident, which orphaned the Aguelhok couple’s two children. But he explores the wider circumstances also, and for another family: A herdsman named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, a Malian actor and singer), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki, a singer and first-time actress), daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and how they live under the new rulers; but particularly how it impacts them when their young sheppard, Issan, loses a favourite member of the flock to a local fisherman’s spear.
Sissako doesn’t bring everything to a tidy conclusion, perhaps because situations like these often have none. But through the central conflict, he explores issues of culture, love, and morality, including the contradictions between the enforcers’ fundamentalist code — which they broadcast in mosques, markets and homes — and their own behaviour. And if you look at Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), for example, you will find that some members of the ruling clique inspire pity as much as discontent.
To fairly portray such characters and the varying impacts of fundamentalist rule, the film includes some less valuable scenes; but it cleverly depicts the struggle for individual expression when faced with strict codes that may only be partially accepted.
Woven into the drama, and to moderate the suffering that can be seen and felt, are beautiful music and photography. And although suicide bombings at filming time meant some scenes show the Mauritanian city of Oualata, described by Sissako as Timbuktu’s “twin,” you get the idea that Malian historian Sekene Cissoko is correct in his assertion that Timbuktu means: “a place covered with sand dunes.” These dunes Sofian El Fani films in the perfect light, playing-up the harsh natural environment to the point where life in the desert seems romantic. The sand — still or blowing — cast as part of the life and spirit of the natives, is soul-stirring. Meanwhile, the rulers prove insufferable and harsh.
That native spirit is theatrically and meditatively expressed, for example, by Zabou (Kettly Noël) whose commanding flair allows her to function as witness, defender, curiosity and comic relief, flaunting her freedom the way no other resident can. Other women do challenge the new rulers — men who treat women worse than the fawn-coloured gazelle chased with gunfire through the dunes; or like the ethnic relics positioned in the sand and shattered by machine-gun fire — but none triumph like Zabou.
After the show, one man said that Timbuktu was captivating, but that no film has ever felt so “foreign” to him. And if that’s because he’s unfamiliar with the oppression he witnessed under Sissako’s direction rather than just not knowing life near the desert, then what we have is a tribute to freedom and reminder to remain vigilant to protect what we cherish.