Abderrahmane Sissako‘s adoring and visually stunning film Timbuktu is a cry from the heart – with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such elegance and such consideration. It is a portrait of the country of his youth, the state of Mali, in West Africa, and in particular the mythic city of Timbuktu, whose opulent and humane traditions are being crushed, as Sissako perceives it, by fanatical jihadis, very often from outside the country. The story revolves around the death of a cow, caringly named “GPS” – a most suitable emblem for a country that has lost its path.
These Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures such as music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stoning for adultery. The new puritans horrify the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices – mobile phones, cars, video-cameras and, of course, weapons. Timbuktu is no longer “tombouctou la mysterieuse”, the dreamlike place of legend, but a strict, grim, unforgiving place of intolerance and fear.
Sissako creates an interrelated series of characters and images giving us scenes from the life of a troubled nation, historically torn apart and prone to failures in communication between its three main languages: Touareg, Arabic and Bambara. At the centre of this is the tragic story of one family: a herdsman Kidane, his wife Satima and their 12-year-old daughter. Kidane angrily confronts a fisherman who has killed his cow, with tragic results. Mali’s new theocratic state must now rule on something that has nothing to do with infringements of its own proliferating religious laws – and its crass callousness and immaturity as a system of government is horribly exposed.
There are some brilliant photographic moments: the panoramic image of the river in which Kidane and the fisherman wobble apart, at different ends of the screen, is superb, composed with a flamboyance that David Lean might have admired. When a jihadi comes close to admitting he is infatuated with Satima, Sissako shows us the swelling dunes with a strategically placed patch of scrub. It is a sudden, Freudian vision of a woman’s naked body, which is then made the subject of a bizarre, misogynist attack.
Elsewhere, young men carry on playing football after football has been banned by miming the game. They rush around the field with an invisible football, earnestly playing a match by imagining where the ball should be. It is a funny, sly, touching scene, reminiscent of anti-Soviet satire. In another scene, a young man is being coached on how to describe his religious conversion for a video (for an awful moment, it looks as if it might be a suicide-bomber “martyrdom” video). The boy talks about how he used to love rap music, but no longer. Yet in the face of the intimidating and gawky direction, the boy lowers his head: he finds he cannot mouth these dogmatic banalities.
Sissako’s portrait of Mali is comparable to Ibrahim El-Batout’s portrait of Egypt and the Tahrir Square protests in his film Winter of Discontent. It is built up with enormous emotion, teetering between hope and despair. The world of the reddish desert, the limestone houses and the people’s flowing clothes, suggest a harmony with nature that is utterly at odds with the foreign fundamentalists with their confusion of accents and loud technology. Sissako’s point, while never heavy-handed, but so often forgotten in the West: Muslims are by a very large margin the world’s biggest victims of Islamic terrorism.