“Timbuktu” – (The forgotten victims and heroes)

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.

Moolaadé- “African solutions to African problems”

Ousmane Sembene was for many, including myself, Africa’s greatest ever film director. His last work,  Moolaadé (the title means physical and spiritual protection) is a fine and brave work, set in an Islamic village in Burkina Faso.

On the surface, this is a cheerful, traditional community, clean, colourfully dressed, not prosperous, but getting by. A beautiful 17-year-old girl is awaiting the return from Paris of the headman’s son to whom she is promised in marriage. But her mother, Collé, the independently minded second wife of a weak, wilful husband, has refused to have her subjected to female circumcision. Then five 12-year-old girls come to Collé in flight from the regular ‘purification’ (i.e. mutilation) ceremonies and she gives them her ‘moulaadé’.

This unleashes powerful conflicts in the village. The elders turn on Collé, as do the team of red-robed women called the Salidana, who carry out the often fatal circumcisions. Her daughter can no longer marry her fiancé, who, despite his new Western ways, bows before his father’s demands.

Detecting the source of subversive knowledge, the males seize the women’s battery-operated radios and make a bonfire of them. An itinerant trader, a rebellious outsider, who has a background of insubordination in the army, takes Collé’s side when her husband whips her in public. That night, he’s driven out of town and murdered.

This powerful movie addresses female mutilation as both a cruel practice to be abolished and as a metaphor for the traditional subjugation of women in a society dominated by self-regarding men who stand idly by as their wives do most of the work, the thinking and the child rearing. It ends affirmatively with the women on the point of controlling their destinies.

The film has as its centrepiece a stomach-turning scene of a screaming girl being ritually cut, juxtaposed with an image of Collé’s husband enforcing his conjugal rights. Collé’s stand leads to a kind of martyrdom for her; the village elders order a totalitarian bonfire of radios, which are filling up the women’s heads with modern ideas – but it ends on a note of hope and change.

This is a movie about contemporary sexual politics in which there is something very real at stake. The final contrasted images are of an ancient ostrich egg that has stood atop the mosque for two centuries, and a TV aerial, a hopeful link to a future of information, education and a world elsewhere.