France/ Mauritania (2014) Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
Sometimes fictionalising contentious issues is a more effective way of highlighting the situation at hand, offering an arbitrary point of view while educating the audience about it. This Oscar nominated film from Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako takes a bold look at Islamic zealots and their occupation of the famous titular city.
The group known as Ansar Dine are imposing their Jihadist views on the locals of the small West African city, brandishing machine guns and shouting their orders via megaphone each morning. From outlawing entertainment such as music and sports to dictating how people – mainly women – should dress this fanatics arrogantly stomp over the Malian’s individual culture with no understanding or compunction.
This all unfolds over a series of vignettes around the city in which the Jihadis go about their business upsetting the apple cart with their senseless bullying which is met with a mixture of fear and disdain, or in some cases defiance. Creating a central storyline is the plight of one family who fall foul of this unwanted and oppressive regime – Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed).
Kidane employs a young lad Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) to herd his cows and while he is giving them water in the river, a fisherman Amadou (Omar Haidara) kills Kidane’s favourite cow GPS for wandering too close to his nets. Kidane confronts Amadou and during the fight Kidane’s gun goes off killing the fisherman. He is later arrested and sentenced to death under Sharia Law.
No that isn’t a spoiler but an integral catalyst to further illustrate the message Sissako is trying to impart. Kidane is generally a good man but his emotions got the better of him. Yet he is to be tried by a judicial system that actually has no jurisdiction over him in this instance since they only punish those who infringe their own religious beliefs. Kidane’s death is ordered because of his inability to provide the “blood money” compensation to Amadou’s family of forty cows when he now only has seven!
Elsewhere the word of Allah is questioned by the local Imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) when some of the Jihadists enter his temple with guns and heavy shoes. The Imam tries to reason with them by explaining that Islam is about peace and their violent and unyielding oppressive behaviour is as sinful as the very things they oppose. While his status is respected his opinions are of course ignored.
Sissako’s approach to his subjects is that of silent rage. Previous films such as Bamako cast a wry and trenchant eye over social injustices yet never get so involved that we feel a passionate opinion either way is being foisted upon us. Timbuktu has that same sense of distance about it although it is clear that Siassako is expressing a tacit anger at the arrogance and aggression of Fundamentalists without courting controversy by criticising the religion itself.
Generally the Jihadists are not portrayed as necessarily evil men with many instances where they almost seem comical, suggesting they may be refugees from Chris Morris’s devastating satire Four Lions. In one scene, a group of French born Jihadists argue over football, a sport that has been outlawed while another has a crafty cigarette despite that being banned too!
Perhaps the most telling sign that not everyone is convinced they are doing the right thing is when a young convert is forced to make a propaganda video condemning his former sinful life as a rap artist and how embracing Allah changed his life for the better, which he simply can’t do with any genuine conviction.
For the first two thirds of this 96 minute film the tone is rather light and Sissako does slowly chip away at the impudence of the occupying Islamists through moments that create a sense of hope and are indicative of the indomitable spirit of the city dwellers in the face of this oppression. Even with the presence of the armed Jihadists about town the locals carry on as normal, circumventing the rules when possible – a football match without a football? That’s what you get here.
But the harsh realities also need to be addressed too and the final act hits hard like a crushing blow to the solar plexus as Sissako dispenses with the pleasantries and reveals the dark side of Sharia Law. A young woman is given 80 lashes – forty for singing and forty for being alone with two men – while an adulterous couple are stoned to death; A fish trader is punished for disobeying the impractical order of wearing gloves and elsewhere a young girl is married off to a Jihadist soldier by force.
To soften the blow a little Sissako shot this film in the most flattering way possible managing to make the seemingly blank canvas of the scorching Mali desert seem inviting and serene. From an artistic point of view the photography is kept largely simple except for some choice moments where it used to its best advantage – the aftermath of Amadou’s death is shot wide from a distance with the dusk sun hanging over the still waters as a panicked Kidane wades away to safety.
Such gorgeous vistas and panoramas are few and far between but are very welcome to offset the sense of austerity and heavy handed doctrine of the puritanical regime which frankly could have been much darker and more direct. Sissako’s detached and deliberately sensitive approach allows the viewer to remain an observer being given the facts to make their own mind up, while bludgeoning them with unrelenting bleakness will lead to hasty and ill informed reactions.
This film may shatter a few illusions about Timbuktu being a mystical land of gold and riches but that is not the intention, nor is lashing out at Islam a prime motive. Sissako’s film makes a bold statement without demanding anything from the audience but their attention and understanding.