THE media all too often associate Islam with taking captives,
but it's a religion that has itself been held hostage by Muslim
terrorists. So says Abderrahmane Sissako, the director of
In northern Mali, a predominantly pious community has harsh
shariah law imposed upon it by invading jihadists. In a film that
is never gratuitously violent (hence a 12A certificate), a
powerless people suffer under the impositions of a regime that is
both brutal and ridiculous. Someone with a loudhailer orders women
to wear socks and men to roll up their pants. Singing, football,
and smoking are also banned. Courts hand out draconian sentences
for the slightest deviations from their edicts.
It would have been all too easy for this remarkable film simply
to chronicle the atrocities perpetrated by the fundamentalists.
Sissako, however, shows them as human beings who are,
metaphorically as well as geographically, a long way from home.
This isn't to excuse their outrages, but to understand them
One of the occupiers, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), fails to keep
their own rules, having a sly smoke and taking a fancy to Satima
(Toulou Kiki), the wife of a herdsman. At the heart of the plot
there is the community's imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), whose gentle
spirituality impresses the soldiers. He persuades them of the
inappropriateness of entering the mosque bearing arms.
Another seeks him out to ask how he defines jihad. He answers:
"spiritual struggle towards harmony and forgiveness"; something
that he is too busy with ever to have the audacity to enforce on
This film was Oscar-nominated, and yet it is far removed from
the wham-bam movie-making styles of Hollywood admirers. Sissako's
narrative employs great subtlety and compassion, following Emily
Dickinson's advice to "tell it slant. . . The Truth must dazzle
gradually Or every man be blind." Timbuktu has an air of
unreality about it. Surely these dreadful things - amputations,
torture, rape etc. - can't be happening?
Sissako does not make his film into a barnstorming piece. An
earlier film of his, Bamako (Arts, 23 February 2007),
does posit a situation where both the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund are put on trial for the disastrous effects their
financial policies have on so-called Third World countries. Africa,
he says, isn't poor. It has been made poor.
He is a much travelled man himself, and the choice and framing
of shots in this film reveal a richness in African society which
often eludes more affluent countries. Not least, we are given a
view of faith which exudes love, compassion, and delight in God's
world. It is a stark contrast to the one by which the insurgents
Timbuktu doesn't offer a solution to these conflicting
outlooks: just an invitation for all of us to re-examine our own
values in the light of what we have been shown.
On current release