Monday night, the Paris-based international press presented Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu with the Prix Lumière for both best film and best director. It was a fitting reward for a film depicting the effect of a group of Islamist fundamentalists on the people of the city which deftly avoids reducing a complicated situation into a simple battle between Good and Evil. Sissako keeps his distance from the narrative allowing the audience to see the inherent absurdity of imposing a medieval religious system on a country which is already moving forward into the 21st century. Alongside Sissako’s inspired direction, the director of photography Sofiane El Fani has created a visual masterpiece with the stunning landscapes adding to the sense of the country as a true Paradise Lost.
Around the central story of Touareg herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satime (Toulou Kiki) and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), Timbuktu draws in a range of characters representative of the city’s fragmented population. Here French people, Arabs and Touaregs live together despite the lack of a common language. And the arrival of the Jihadis is an unwelcome addition to the mix. When one of Kidane’s cattle is killed by a fisherman, Kidane sets off to demand an explanation only for the confrontation to end in tragedy when the fisherman is accidently shot. Kidane is hauled before a local Jihadi court and punished under Sharia law – a decision which destroys his family.
Sissako made Timbuktu after reading of an unmarried couple who were stoned to death in the west African state of Mali in 2012 – an horrific event which he includes in the film. He says he wanted to make clear the real victims of Islamic fundamentalism are local populations held hostage by Jihadist groups. He also wanted to emphasise that Islam is not Jihad and vice versa. Jihadis are shown as ordinary individuals prone to the same weaknesses and doubts as others, but held together by a cruel sense of purpose. Locals are forbidden to smoke, yet one of the Jihadi leaders Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) likes to sneak off for a sly cigarette. The leader who passes judgement on Kidane admits he is sorry his daughter will be an orphan, but asks for his words not to be translated for the herdsman. And yet these same people remain coldly detached from the most inhumane punishments.
Timbuktu also pays hommage to the durability of the human spirit. In one haunting scene, local boys play a game of football. But as the game is forbidden, they play with an imaginary ball, dribbling and passing it to each other with all the skill of professional players. And as with his other films, Sissako’s stongest characters are women. From Satime who refuses to wear a headscarf to the singer who continues to sing even as her sentence of 80 lashes is carried out.