Cruelty and joy in Timbuktu

Cruelty and joy in Timbuktu
4 min read
14 March, 2015
Review: The beautifully filmed movie looks at life under the control of an Islamist-jihadi group in Mauritania.
Sissato wins an award for Timbuktu at the Cesar film awards [Getty]
As part of its Qumra initiative, the Doha Film Institute provided cinema-goers in Qatar with a golden opportunity to see the international-Mauritanian film Timbuktu (2014) by Abderrahmane Sissako.

The film has made the rounds at various major film festivals including Cannes and Abu Dhabi, and has won several prestigious prizes. It came close to winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The theme of the film - the cruelty, harshness and intimidation of Islamist-jihadi groups - has engrossed people more than the cinematic expression. In addition, the ugliness of the practices of those labelled the "thieves of Islam", according to the director's fitting description, is neither stereotypical nor absolute. This is because no matter how evil or warped a human being appears there is always a chance of finding some humanity within them, and discovering his sense of belonging to the rest of mankind.

If this film succeeded at conveying the depth of its characters, their troubled minds, and their silenced sentiments, it also conveys the severe distress that overwhelms those who are part of human society in and among the deserts of Africa. It expresses their simple joys, as they live with misery and fight against tyranny, domination and oppression with sarcasm, happiness and love.
     One of the many joys of this film was the beauty of unspoiled nature - the valleys, rivers, sand, trees, and the simplicity of life grazing and fishing.

Two years ago, the armed men of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took control of areas in north Mali, and African and international military forces (French in particular) drove them out of these areas. Meanwhile, they continued to occupy land around Timbuktu and impose their authority on the impoverished community there.

Abderrahmane Sissako's film looks at the lives of the people in a village in that area and the sheer terror they felt. It also focuses on the prohibitions and rules imposed on those ill-fated people during their rule. The cameras roam around the village's alleys, enter its mud houses and its community, and delve into the lives of the residents, young and old, male and female.

One of the many joys of this film is the beauty of unspoiled nature - the valleys, rivers, sand, trees, and the simplicity of life grazing and fishing. Theses scenes act as an antithesis to the ugliness practised by those ruling the village in the name of their version of Islam.

Expressions of love by Ibrahim Ahmed, the film's protagonist, for his young daughter and wife, demonstrated his strong acting skills. His character was a cattle herder living with his family in a tent on the edge of the village.

Toulou Kiki also gave a strong performance as his wife. Also,  we cannot ignore the excellent performance by the actor who played the Algerian jihadist, an anxious man who had to keep his smoking habit secret because it was prohibited by the group he belongs to. There is also the judge who presides over the court of the Mujahideen, not to mention others who worked on the film.

The film contains scenes of rejection and confrontation, courage and sacrifice, especially by women in the village who stood up against the orders of the jihadist occupiers. There was a great deal of irony in the film as children played football without a real football due to a ban on the popular game.

Music and singing were also banned but the people resisted by rejoicing in their homes with African emotion and Saharan beats. How expressive and eloquent was the message in the scene where a girl who was crying as she was being flogged as punishment for enjoying a moment of music and singing transformed her sobs into song.

Timbuktu (which is also entitled Singing Bird), it has been said, is a strong condemnation of religious fundamentalism and intolerance. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, described the film as one resisting brutality. This is true. It also true that it is a celebration of peaceful, bold and courageous resistance against extremist fundamentalism.

But it is essential that this praise is tempered with an emphasis on the director's skill in achieving a beautiful film with a harmony that maintains its appeal in terms of story and image. It expresses human pain in the far-away African desert, where there is something that resembles Arab lands that are not so far away.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.