Defying jihad: Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed 'Timbuktu' dramatizes a city under siege

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In Bamako (2007), Abderrahmane Sissako put the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on trial in Mali. In his latest narrative feature, Timbuktu, his “defendants” are the jihadists who occupied that Malian city two years ago. While the filmmaker judges them harshly, he also cleverly reveals the people they once were, men not very different than the city dwellers they torment. Each of these narrative features by the native Mauritanian filmmaker draws sublime portraits of those who dwell in these North African nations, illustrating the diversity of their languages and customs, their livelihoods and their music.

In Timbuktu, which will be released by Cohen Media Group on Jan. 28, Sissako depicts individual acts of courage against tyranny, the kind which so rarely find their way into newspaper headlines.

At the October press conference at the New York Film Festival, where Timbuktu had its U.S. premiere, one journalist recalled the effort to remove the city’s historical documents during the occupation. It was widely reported in the Western press, but it was not in Sissako’s movie. “I think this really has to do with the idea of culture,” he replied, “and the fact that in Western culture, an oral culture is not really viewed as highly, and I come from an oral culture.” In our interview a few hours later, he recalled the exchange. “I hope I was understood,” he ruminated, “because you know, during that time, I never saw a headline about the death of an African baby.”

Shortly after the jihadists entered Timbuktu in April 2012, Sissako, who first envisioned his project as a documentary, began interviewing those fleeing the city. In August, there was news of a lapidation by the same Islamic State militants in nearby Aguelhok of an unmarried couple with two children. It went unreported in the major Western news outlets. At that point, Sissako decided on a narrative feature, and brought on Malian co-screenwriter Kessen Tall, who makes her debut on Timbuktu. Sissako had planned to film in the city after the jihadists were expelled by European and Malian forces in January 2013, but it proved too risky. Instead, production took place in Oualata, Mauritania, which is several hundred miles west across the Sahara. Sissako was born in that country, but lived for much of his boyhood in Mali.

Many members of Sissako’s ensemble cast are friends and acquaintances, all Africans although not professional actors, who live in Paris. They relocated to Mauritania for two months. Extras, and Layla Walat Mohamed, who portrays the movie’s memorable girl character Toya, were recruited from refugee camps in Mauritania, where Sissako found Malians and other amateurs whose ethnicities and languages matched those of Timbuktu. “Timbuktu is a multicultural city,” the writer-director explains. “There are speakers of Tuareg, Bambara, Berber dialects, Arabic and Bwa. What I wanted to show was that the people who are there are all people who came from elsewhere—and the people who in effect took the city of Timbuktu hostage were also people who came from elsewhere.”

The plot of Timbuktu centers mostly on the jihadists, the mosque’s imam (Abdel Mahmoud Cherif) who serves as a mediator between the extremists and the townspeople, and Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and Satima (Toulou Kiki), the married couple who live outside the city in a Berber-like tent, with their daughter Toya. The residents grapple with the new rules imposed by the occupiers, including a music ban, clothing restrictions for women and men, and the legalization of forced marriage. All of these, but especially the latter, disrupt the social fabric of the city, and invite strangers to take advantage of the chaos. For instance, the imam attempts to stop the forced marriage of one of his flock by an outsider who appeals to the jihadists. Kidane, who uses the river to water his cows, clashes with a fisherman who places his nets there. In the course of the movie, we witness the disturbing outcome of these conflicts, some of which are based on Sissako’s interviews.

Like Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, Sissako views Islamic extremism as eclipsing native African culture. He begins Timbuktu with a gazelle leaping across the desert to escape bullets from the automatic weapons of marauding jihadists, who also use their guns to deface wooden and ceramic totems. “What I wanted to show with the running deer,” Sissako observes, “is how the beauty, fragility and harmony is upset by their presence. Then you see the jihadists shooting at the masks, which are our African identity. As you say, that is also what is being attacked here.” Animals are used symbolically throughout the film; for instance, donkeys, who are transport, and beasts of burden are, ironically, the only creatures now permitted to move freely. “I think the donkey is a magnificent creature because it is one that gives a great deal,” Sissako remarks, “but to whom very little is given.”

Sissako’s cinema is very Bressonian, and not just because the French filmmaker stands out as the only writer-director ever to have made a film that starred a donkey, Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966). For Sissako, as for Robert Bresson, sound is as important to the mise en scène as image. This is especially evident in a scene in which a group of boys are playing soccer, a forbidden activity under the jihadist occupation. The choreographed play, without a ball, is set to music. “In the soccer game, each time there is a pass of the ball, there is a tiny sound. There is no ball but the sound represents the ball.” Music becomes the sound of freedom again when a singer defies the ban and is arrested by the militants. “She is a symbol of sensuality as well, a kind of controlled sensuality,” the filmmaker says. “That was banned as well.”

Sissako has never seen a Bresson film. “Someone else said that my films are Bressonian,” he admits. “I have had other influences that perhaps do not come from the cinema but could be Bressonian in their own way.” Sissako, who was born in 1961, studied film in Moscow; one of his professors there was an assistant to the iconic Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin). “Film is a language and you speak it with your own intonation. And intonation is how you were brought up in your family and the things that you had and the things that you didn’t have. Finally, you become this person, perhaps an imperfect one, and your films in a way reflect that as well.”

There is a stillness about Sissako that belies his passion to give voice to African sensibilities. At one point in the film, a muslin curtain fills the screen in a point-of-view shot from Satima’s perspective, and one feels that the wife foresees her husband’s fate. “It is very important for me when a film can make even one person understand it in the way you did,” the writer-director says, “because then I know I have been sincere.” Sissako, who tells his actors very little about the script, explains that casting in Mauritania and Mali is almost impossible, as there are no theatrical or cinematic venues. “This woman, she has the ability to transcend things to the point where she understands very quickly what will happen to her husband,” he observes of Toulou Kiki, who is a singer by profession. “She is a force of serenity. You do not even have the sense that this is an actor acting.”

During filming, Sissako’s heart, and the soul of Timbuktu, belonged not to Kiki, although she is remarkable, but to Lalya, the girl for whom he rewrote the script. “For two days, I kept seeing her face,” he says, speaking metaphorically. “I think she understood before I did that she had to be in the film, and this is the kind of cinema that interests me—when a film is made like that.”