Film Review: Timbuktu – “Where is God in all of this?”

Photo: Emilio Labrador/Flickr (CC BY)

Photo: Emilio Labrador/Flickr (CC BY)

By Kari van der Ploeg -

A desert in Northern Mali. Shots are fired. Bodies are destroyed. Wooden Malian artifacts are shattered, and with them the culture and identity of Mali’s people. To destroy a culture, is like destroying the identity of its people. The openings scene of Abderrahmane Sissako’s new film ‘Timbuktu’ shows this practice, an important part of the genocidal process in a poetic way. Timbuktu is a subtle and visually beautiful condemnation of the violence and repression brought upon Northern Mali when Jihadists took over in 2012.

The invasion of Northern Mali began in April 2012 and did not end until late 2013, when French and Malian troops recaptured the area. Though a specific time is not given, it is clear that the story is set during the early stages of the invasion, as the inhabitants of the town are struggling with the changes forced upon them. Timbuktu is home to practitioners of a benevolent and tolerant form of Islam. Central to the story are the Touareg herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Wahed Mohamed). Their neighbours have moved to safer areas, but the family has decided to stay. When Jihadists take over Timbuktu, life is turned upside down, as acts of pleasure such as football, music, dancing and smoking, are forbidden. Jihadi fighters are present day and night to enforce these new rules upon Timbuktu’s inhabitants, who can count on harsh reprimands when they transgress the Sharia law.

Sissako does not shy away from showing violence. His inspiration for the film came from an online video he once saw. A couple was buried to their heads in sand and then stoned to death. They were involved in a romantic relationship, without being married. Sissako includes this event in his movie, yet displays the violence discretely and with respect for the victims. We see the first two stones thrown, the rest is left up to imagination. His distant take on violence forms a contrast with the more dramatic approach in Hollywood films such as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013). In another scene we see singer Fatou (Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara), being subjected to 40 lashes for making music. She sings while tears sting her face as her punishment is executed. The scene mirrors the lashing of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in 12 Years a Slave. The difference between the scenes is the distance the directors take. In Timbuktu, we do not see any flayed flesh and do not hear the loud outcries. Sissako rather focusses on the emotional effect the punishment has on its victim, making its effect more profoundly felt.

Sissako “takes a deadly aim at Muslim fundamentalism by playing its own game of deft ridicule”, Joe Morgernstern of the Wall Street Journal observes sharply. Instead of telling the story in terms of good versus evil, Sissako shows a vulnerable side of the perpetrators, including their desires and insecurities. He delivers harsh criticism on religious fundamentalism by mockingly showing how its agents are merely protecting themselves instead of a greater good. In the end, they are human beings who crave the pleasures they forbid. Their prohibition of football gives center stage to a beautiful scene of two teams playing an imaginary game of football. Everything makes it look like a regular game, only the ball is missing. The Jihadists are at the same time getting into headed discussions about rivalling football clubs themselves. Even though adultery is one of the greatest sins under Sharia law, it doesn’t stop Jihadist Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) from making a move on Kidane’s beautiful wife Satima (or smoking a cigarette out of frustration for his failed attempts). One of the most gripping scenes of the movie is when one of the fighters is performing an emotional modern dance on a rooftop, when he thinks no one is looking, guided by the excellent soundtrack of Fatoumata Diawara. Sissako makes his audience understand that these vulnerable men need their violence to protect themselves from an internal evil. By showing their human sides, he delivers a very accurate critique on the overarching concept of religious fundamentalism itself, rather than on its agents. In the end, they are victim of their own times.

A young man sits in front of a flag with Islamic verses. Another man stands behind the camera. The youngster tries to put his religious journey into words. He used to be a rapper he says, now he has found God. Yet, when trying to describe the dogmatic views he is fighting for, he blacks out. He runs off, upset and ashamed. Another scene. At night time, four people are making music in the privacy of their home. Jihadists are looking for the source. When they find it, they hear the people are playing religious songs. Still, they storm in to arrest them, music is forbidden after all. Even traditional ways of worship are not safe anymore for the religious warriors. Neither is the mosque, which they enter with guns in their hands. The Imam sits them down and asks: “Where’s leniency? Where’s forgiveness? Where’s piety? Where is God in all this?” It becomes clear, it is not God they are fighting for. What factors have sparked their motivations remains unknown in Timbuktu, but it seems as if they have been drawn into a spiral of violent behaviour, losing sight of the purpose they are supposed to be fighting for. Sissaso hereby gives an insightful analysis on the nature of violence. He shows his audience that violence is fuelled by internal motivations of its perpetrators, rather than religion or politics.

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Kari van der Ploeg

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