“Timbuktu,” director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako’s exquisite new feature, is an angry and mournful account of the people of the Malian city and its surrounding dessert resisting the 2012 occupation of heavily armed, foreign jihadist buffoons, with defiance and disdain.
There are also moments of love and joy. A beautiful family, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, aka Pino), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), lives simply and peacefully in a tent in the dunes, removed from the repression and violence in Timbuktu. Kidane plays his guitar, Satima and Toya care for their goats and Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), also 12, helps Kidane tend the herd of eight cows that provides the family’s livelihood.
In Timbuktu, men are instructed to roll up the cuffs of their pants, a woman selling fish is ordered to wear gloves (in addition to socks and the mandatory chador). Cigarettes, music soccer, all off-limits (although in a wonderful, funny scene, boys play without a ball, miming their beloved game). And a junior militant with a megaphone, stands in the ochre street, detailing everything that’s been prohibited since the fundamentalists’ takeover, ending his tirade with “(It’s) forbidden to do any old thing.”
Slowly Islamic extremist control reaches into the dessert, eroding the family’s near-idyllic life. Satima is repeatedly menaced by visits from an aggressive jihadist, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), when Kidane is away. But when the intruder tells her that she must cover her head, she responds, “Don’t look at what you don’t want to see.” She longs to flee with her family, but they lack an escape route.
Perversion of Sharia law is used to justify grotesque abuse (a young woman is married to a militant, against her will and despite her mother’s fierce protestations and the objection of the local imam) and atrocity (a beautiful singer is brutally lashed for her glorious music* and a male and a female companion are stoned to death for “being together”).
Sissako who was born in Mauritania but grew up in Mali says, “The film, through the couple Kidane and Satima, insists on one essential point: that violence will never be able to kill love. You can kill a man, but you cannot kill the love he has for his daughter, his wife. This is fundamental, and is the key to victory over barbarity. It is how we defy extremism. They will not have the last word. Beauty and dignity will triumph.”
“Timbuktu,” (nominated for best foreign language film), will open on Wednesday, January 28 at Film Forum for a two-week run.
*Music is a fundamental part of the culture of Mali. Ibrahim Ahmed (who plays Kidane), born in Gao, Mali, has been part of the two international and well-known Touareg music bands, Tamikrest and Terakaft. The great Malian singer, Salif Keita, known as “the golden voice of Africa” (which totally undersells his profound talent), like Sissako, is an artist well-aquainted with beauty. Just two of my favorite songs: “Folon” and “Seydou.”
Keita is a common name in Mail–the empire was founded by Sundiata Keita (from whom Salif Keita is a directly descended)–so I just choose to think the Seydou he’s singing about (obviously my language skills don’t include Bambara) is the photographer Seydou Keita (1921–2001), as great a portraitist as Sander, Avedon or Penn. The story that Salif and Seydou are nephew and uncle is probably apocryphal–I can’t find any evidence–but they are linked by their massive artistry.