Early on in Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a jihadist gets off a motorcycle in a city street and announces over a loudspeaker that from now on smoking is forbidden, music is haram, and women must cover up. The jihadists have taken over, and life is about to change for Timbuktu’s inhabitants. The rest of the film traces the way in which those words become a deadly reality. At the center of the film is Kidane (played by Ibrahim Ahmed), a Tuareg herdsman who gets caught up, along with his family, in the jihadists’ net after a fatal accident by the river one day.
“Timbuktu” is the first film by an African-born black filmmaker to be nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar in this year’s Academy Awards. Its director, Sissako, who is half-Mauritanian and half-Malian, was inspired to make the film after the real-life takeover of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, a jihadist group that briefly occupied the famed ancient city in Mali in 2012.
In the wake of the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria and the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in recent times, the film is relevant to the present moment for obvious reasons. But Sissako’s achievement transcends the present moment.
For one thing, it’s a film that makes magic out of the stark landscape of the desert, and its visual symbolism—from the image of dust rising out of the mouth of an indigenous figurine shot up by jihadists to a wide shot of Kidane crossing a river not only to the other bank, but into a new, tragic fate—is both beautiful and provocative.
“Timbuktu” is not without its flaws; certain scenes drag, and some of the actors are more convincing than others. The plot moves abruptly at times, but the film more than makes up for these flaws through its visual shrewdness.
Perhaps the most stunning scene in the film is the one depicting a football game. The jihadists ban sports in the town and balls are confiscated. Still, the town’s young men get together to play a football game—with an invisible ball. It’s a scene that perfectly captures, as some critics have noted, the absurdity of the jihadists’ project. More than that, it’s a beautiful vision of resistance.
The film is also impressive in its multilingualism. Bambara, Tamasheq, French, Arabic and English are all spoken by the characters. The relationship between language and religion is important; just as the film presents multiple versions of Islam, so the multiple languages remind us that the religion can’t be reduced to one viewpoint, one cultural or personal perspective. Long scenes depict characters translating to, or for, other characters. Sometimes a character translating will misinterpret or change the speaker’s original words. At other times characters are unable to understand one other. “Your Arabic is terrible,” a senior jihadist tells one of his juniors. “Speak in English.” This in itself gets at the heart of the battle over Islam, which is a battle over translation or interpretation. How do the jihadists translate this religion? How do the millions of ordinary Muslims who live and breathe Islam on a daily basis translate it? Is there one interpretation that’s more valid than the rest?
What is refreshing is that Westerners—and Westerners’ views on Islam—are notably side-lined in this film. “Timbuktu” shows us Muslim characters grappling with Islam. In a Q&A after a screening of the film at the Film Forum in Manhattan in New York City on February 7th, Sissako made the point that it’s necessary for Muslims to engage in more debate within their own communities about the religion. The film dramatizes this idea. The imam of the local mosque argues over the meaning of jihad with the newly-arrived fundamentalists; two jihadists disagree about whether Kidane, the hero, is a good Muslim; a woman fish-seller confronts the “Islamic Police” about the impracticalities of their injunction that women wear gloves. She’s fish-seller: how can she wash her fish with gloves on?
The film has been criticized by some for “humanizing” the jihadists. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks one mayor of a Paris suburb went so far as to ban it from cinemas (though he later backpedalled). But the representation of the jihadists is not that simple. Visually, the jihadists are often presented as shadowy figures, lurking on rooftops, stalking alleyways, bursting in on the privacy of people’s homes: spooks in the night. But these shots of dark, gun-wielding spooks are contrasted with the close-ups that we get of their faces, of their wrinkles, eyes, smiles. There are two sides to the coin. The spooks who stone a woman and a man to death for adultery are the same people who can be charming and funny and charismatic.
The film’s most subversive achievement is not that it humanizes the jihadists, but that it humanizes all Muslims. There is no one monolithic Islam and no one monolithic Muslim identity. This may seem self-evident, but it’s a fact that’s often forgotten in the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric used to talk about Islam and terrorism post-9/11.
“Timbuktu” is a testament to what art does best, treading the line between the universal and the specific. The film gives us a universal vision of Islam, which is also specific, particular to the individual stories and characters that it depicts. We can only begin to have a broader picture of the religion through those individual stories, and it is stories like these which make any easy generalization impossible.