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Under a heavy jihadist yoke

05 June 2015

Stephen Brown sees a film set in Mali


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 Timbuktu.

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 better.

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 someone else.

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 live.

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.

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