Timbuktu is a gentle film that concerns itself with violence: physical force, but also the violence of surveillance, repression, and the negation that colonizers bring with them. By gentle, I do not mean that the film is lyrical (although it certainly has moments of poetry) nor that it avoids a protest against a very specific set of outrages; it has a politics, and indeed, was inspired by a desire to inform. What I mean is that the film itself is not an outraged representation, and does not wear its heart on its sleeve, or rather, wave its banner above its head. (Such one-dimensional communications are, in fact, reserved for the factions that the film is taking to task). Rather, like the small gazelle that it takes as its emblem, the film is quiet, graceful, nimble, yet deadly serious in its task, moving quickly and fully concentrated – concerned with getting somewhere, even if that somewhere cannot be specified as anything other than away, and taking the audience along with it.
The film is a portrayal of Timbuktu under sharia law, as dictated by a group of (mostly Arab) jihadis. Inspired by actual events in 2012, Sissako selected Timbuktu to serve as the center of the film for a variety of reasons. First, it was a city of tolerance, home to a heterogeneous mix of Christians and Muslims who had lived in peaceful proximity for centuries. It was also a storied center of learning, a trait which indeed supported and informed such tolerance. Beyond that, Sissako, a native of Mauritania, was raised in Mali, and was shocked by the depredations that befell the country at the hands of extremist Muslim invaders; specifically, it was the report of a young couple being stoned to death in 2012 because they were not married that catalyzed him. The film, then, serves to pluck the city from the obscurity it suffers in the West (where it is synonymous with the middle of nowhere) and to portray a sophisticated, cosmopolitan culture repressed by an invading force. We do eventually see this young couple, and their execution, but getting there is a journey through the gradual steps of control exerted by this “caring” other. Just as Western colonizers patronized African populations with the knowledge of “how to live correctly,” so too do the jihadis, and perhaps more insidiously as well, as the disputes are pitched at the level of doctrinal difference. For the Arab-led colonizers, the matter is one of following the law closely and consistently (although the lie of such an assertion is disclosed in several scenes), whereas for the moderate Muslims of Timbuktu, instruction on how to live correctly becomes a lesson in fear, suffering, and death.
The concept of legality is the real weapon wielded by the jihadis, who use it, along with the calm and rational performance of its application in courtrooms, to legitimize a regime which ultimately allows for nothing save what will replicate its own power and control. This is one of Sissako’s great contributions; he does not portray the jihadis as evil, or even particularly extreme individually. They are most often middle-aged men whose attitude is one of calm obedience, who would more often than not prefer to avoid the regrettable outcomes that their wills impose. The leaders appear intelligent, they remain calm and collected, sure they understand these wayward others – as do many who are convinced of their own piety and purpose. Thus as the film moves along, inexorably portraying the increasingly harsh outcomes for those who do not see why their normal, daily behaviors are suddenly criminal and they impious, we too move from feeling that perhaps these forces can be lived with and accommodated, to understanding that there is little recourse and no way out of the problem except flight, abandonment, or resignation. Early on, we have hope, as the local imam, venerable, truly pious, logical and kindly, convinces the jihadis of a few things: leaving the mosque during prayer, for instance, as well as leaving their weaponry outside. Later, though, in another scene of doctrinal disagreement, we begin to understand, along with him, that he is not dealing with other Muslims, in the sense that they share a worldview grounded in the same text. The invaders define terms differently, and what use are definitions anyway when, ultimately, one side is convinced of its righteousness because it wields the power of physical force and the will to use it? The moderates work from the text to a way of life – the invaders have already decided the way, and draw from the text to give their power a sheen of legitimacy.
This portrayal of life in the city, in which Timbuktu itself is the main character, is one half of the film. The other half deals with a Tuareg family that lives on the outskirts, managing a small herd of cattle. This half of the film gives us a more normative narrative arc to follow, as we move with the family from an ideal life that barely references the invaders to ultimate disaster (although the disaster, as a consequence of sharia, is only a by-product of the jihadis, as they do not directly interfere with the family’s daily life in any significant way). The father of this little household is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), nominally a shepherd of the cattle, but truly a musician and singer. He and his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), have a 12 year old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). There is a young shepherd, Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), who is directly responsible for the cattle; I took him to be Kidane’s stepson, fathered by a previous husband of Satima’s. Other sources refer to him as simply the family’s young shepherd. One day while shepherding, the prized, pregnant cow, named GPS, gets caught up in a local fisherman’s nets while drinking, and the fisherman kills it. This leads Kidane to confront the fisherman with a small handgun. Part of the motivation for this confrontation is the atmosphere of mounting anger and humiliation brought about by the presence of the jihadis (although the fisherman is a local); I also felt that there was a psychological pressure on Kidane to live up to his predecessor, who Issan says was, in contrast, a very good herdsman. Satima tries to convince Kidane not to take the weapon, but he insists, and in explaining his reasoning, he disavows what Satima fears the most – that it will lead to the destruction of the family. Kidane confronts the fisherman, accidentally killing him, and thus, subject to sharia law, is sentenced to die, as he does not have the resources to pay the demanded 40 cattle of blood money required. The confusion over the family structure, while not paramount, does matter, as the psychologies at work within the family do dictate the outcome of the film, in which Satima makes the decision to intervene in Kidane’s execution, leaving the family fragmented and dispersed.
Sissako’s use of the “personal” story does an impressive, and effective, job of serving to illustrate how the repression brought by the invaders casts a wide net of consequences. It also serves as an allegory of the destruction of the “natural,” or native, modes of being, which are seamlessly intertwined with history, the landscape, and animal life. The movie is book-ended by shots of jihadis in a pickup truck imposing, rather than “doing,” violence. In the opening, we see them chasing the aforementioned small gazelle, shooting at it with automatic rifles, not to kill it, but to exhaust it. We then see them using ancient tribal figures and statuary for target practice. The ending repeats this configuration, but collapses the animal, the figurative, and the historical into those now being chased, the remnants of Kidane’s family; like the gazelle, they flee with no further thought, as any sense of continuity or the possible has been eliminated. They are now simply living fodder for target practice, an other that must necessarily be effaced to legitimize the acts of violence already committed. While we do not learn their ultimate fate – exhaustion and submission at best, destruction at worst – it does not matter, as it was preordained from the moment the intruders arrived. What appeared at the start of the film as a progression reveals itself to be what all totalitarian ideologies are – a predetermined destination disguising itself as a journey of discovery.