Timbuktu, a film by French Mauritius director Abderrahmane Sissako, depicts the ten month occupation of the town in Mali, West Africa by Islamic militants. They announce their unjust and irrational rules through rusty loudspeakers driving through the sandy streets on decrepit motorbikes. Not once is their ideology taken seriously, yet those who do not oblige are met with disheartening brutality. Women are singled out, forced not only to wear the veil but gloves to hide any hint of femininity, whilst men are told they can now only wear cropped trousers. Cigarettes are banished whilst the militants carry on smoking in secret, as well as football and music, stripping the locals of their simple daily pleasures.
Our hero Kidane, attempts to shelter himself from the occupation, living in an idyllic tent in the sand dunes with his wife and beautiful little girl. We often see shots of them lying down, barefoot, drinking tea and playing music, remaining true to their philosophies. However Kidane becomes wrapped up with the violence of the town when he accidentally shoots a fisherman and is taken away from his family. We are painfully aware Kidane will never return to his daughter Toya who holds together the remains of innocence left in the world. Sissako ends the film with a visually powerful scene of Kidane’s daughter running in the dunes, reminding us of the opening montage of the gazelle running from the militant’s gun fire, exhausted but undefeated. Standing up for freedom of expression may sometimes feel like running in sand, but not once do the characters sink. The locals hold an inner dignity which cannot be taken away by the extremists whose only danger lies in their weapons.
Perhaps the most touching scene in the film is of the young men playing a game of football with no ball, their movements accompanied by the delicate music of Amine Bouhafa. Another notable scene of resistance is when a woman is whipped for having sung in her home, but her cries of pain quickly transform into song, her frail voice resonating and overpowering the sound of torture. Barbarism is always counterbalanced with beauty; not once in Timbuktu do we feel submerged with violence. Even in the stoning scene, where a man and woman are buried in the sand, their hands the sole target of rocks, we are unexpectedly not left with a sense of despair. This split second shot of violence changes to a man dancing in the sand, his witness a smile. Despite being haunted by the previous graphic images as the faint sound of drums mimic the stoning, the scene commemorates their death with the beauty of self-expression which reigns free in an unjust world.
Sissako helps provide hope in a society confronted by religious extremism which often catches us off guard, taking the lives of innocent people when we least expect it. Timbuktu provides an intellectual alternative to the mindless killings linked to militant Islamism. It engenders defiance in the face of injustice which can only be effective as a collective body of thought. Sissako brings us a truly inspiring story of a community who do not give into fear; whose responses we should all follow in this time of mourning for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Images: Sylvie Pialat