In This World
by Genevieve Yue

Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, Cohen Media Group

At the Q&A with director Abderrahmane Sissako following the New York Film Festival press screening of Timbuktu, a couple of journalists quibbled with each other over whether the film owed more to Hollywood war films of the forties or Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Sissako’s protests aside—he had not, in fact, been thinking about the Second World War when making his film—the demand for a specific historical, and also cinematic, frame of reference was telling. For these members of the press corps, a film about the recent takeover of northern Mali by fundamentalist Islamic militants was unthinkable outside of the experience of Western calamity. Events that were happening “over there” couldn’t be considered truly global until they were related to their Western equivalents, and they couldn’t be aesthetically legible until fitted to the lauded tradition of the war film.

Regardless of this insistence to fit the film to western norms of genre, Timbuktu stands on its own as a humanistic portrayal of a dehumanizing occupation. And though the film may not declare its international affiliations in a way satisfying to a handful of shortsighted journalists, the world is nevertheless very present within the film. One of the first people to appear onscreen is a white westerner who is being taken to a desert hideout. Here is a person who could be seen as the surrogate for white audiences, but Sissako frustrates these expectations. After the man’s headscarf and blindfold are removed, he converses calmly and fluently in Arabic with the men who have delivered him, and gives medicine to their leader. It is unclear whether he is captive or collaborator, though there is an air of routine in their exchange. All we know of this man, this link to the Western world, is that he plays a small part in the day-to-day functioning of the jihadist group, and we never see him again.

A sense of the larger world, beyond merely that of the West, is expressed in many linguistic encounters. When a few men ride into Timbuktu on a motorcycle, holding up a loudspeaker, they blast the decrees of Sharia law first in their official language, Arabic, then, in order to be understood, in the local language of Bambara. Later, when some militants fail to comprehend each other speaking Arabic over radio dispatches, they resort to English. From the regionally and ethnically specific Tamasheq that a convicted man uses to communicate with one of his guards, to the colonial languages of French and English, the words spoken in the film reflect the city’s various histories of conquest. This is also the condition of film’s actors, who were drawn from across Africa, Europe, and North America, with the lead couple, Ibrahim Ahmed and Toulou Kiki, playing Kidane and Satima, cast from a Tuareg refugee camp in Italy, and the resident chicken-wrangling madwoman played by the Haitian actress Kettly Noel. Like the lives of those they portray, many of the actors are globally displaced. Staying put, the film makes clear, is not an option.

Displacement occurs within the city of Timbuktu as well. Residents have been forced indoors because it has become illegal to linger in public places, and music has been banned. For women, the new laws are especially difficult. They must now cover their hands and feet, and many are subjected to forced marriages. Adultery is punished, as we see in one grisly scene, by burying the offending couple in sand and stoning their exposed heads. In the dunes beyond the city, Satima urges her husband Kidane to leave like their neighbors before them. She tells him of the jihadist who visits her while he is out tending cattle, including his prize cow, GPS, another name that locates the film on a global map. The strange man’s demeanor is quietly menacing; though Satima bravely rejects his romantic entreaties, she senses how dangerous he is. (We sense this too, having seen him in another scene stop his jeep to machine gun a tuft of grass.) Kidane, whose disposition is much softer than his wife’s, demurs. “I’d rather we stay,” he says.

Sissako’s relatively slow visual style, which soaks in natural light in long, often wide shots, may seem at odds with the tense and urgent situation he describes (though Timbuktu is notably more fleet than his previous feature, 2006’s Bamako). The film’s inherent drama could easily be heightened with manufactured dread and suspense, but Sissako relaxes the pace to gain a broader view. Instead of accentuating conflict, he details smaller moments of change. He interrupts the main storyline of Kidane and his family with vignettes to illustrate the deepening horrors—a fishmonger’s refusal to don gloves at the market, an elderly man scolding a jihadist for carrying AK-47s into a mosque, and the use of traditional masks as target practice—and watches from some distance as their circumstances worsen in small but progressive steps.

Kidane is a better musician than he is a cattle rancher, both of which have become dangerous activities. He plays his guitar at night, apparently unaware of or unconcerned with the consequences of being caught. Unlike the woman who sings defiantly as she’s being beaten for the crime of making music, Kidane has yet to realize the full threat of the new regime. Sissako adeptly portrays the occupation as a gradual process. In the beginning, jihadists chat idly about the French national soccer team. Later we learn in an ad-hoc tribunal that soccer is illegal, and anyone caught playing will receive 20 lashes. Still, a group of boys play a game, Blow-up-like, with an imaginary ball, halting only when the militants come riding through on their motorcycle. The missing ball appears later, bouncing through the city streets, everyone near it angrily accosted by the same men who once debated the talents of Zidane.

For the inhabitants of Timbuktu, as well as the men recruited to the Islamic State, this is a process in which everyone is dehumanized. It may be surprising for some viewers to laugh gently along with a young man when he records several takes of a jihadist recruitment video, trying to avow his faith to the satisfaction of a stern director off-screen. Sissako’s touch can be unnervingly light, but it is no less devastating for being so. For both victims and perpetrators, the fundamentalist laws that have been enforced in Timbuktu, have the effect of stifling human life, even if, on the surface, things appear orderly. At times, this point is delivered rather bluntly, but the film deepens in complexity as it narrows its focus to the story of Kidane and his family.

In this atmosphere, it comes as less of a shock when, midway through the film, Kidane brings a gun to a quarrel with a fisherman and accidentally kills him. When he is tried. he accepts his death sentence as a “fate that cannot be avoided.” The forces he encounters, however, are not all natural. Though it’s possible to say that GPS wandered into the fisherman’s nets because of drought, or that the fisherman killed the cow because his own yield was poor, the most powerful elements portrayed in the film are those of Islamic fundamentalism sweeping the region. Would things have turned out differently had northern Mali not capitulated? Would Kidane’s daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), still have a father? Kidane, who refuses to listen to his wife when she asks him to leave the gun at home, or to leave their desert home, cannot be moved. Yet the world around him has undeniably changed. His resignation, too, is a form of resistance. This is dramatized in one memorable vista where he stumbles across a shallow, wind-rippled stream away from the man he has fatally wounded. In this and other views, Sissako and his cinematographer Sofiane El Fani (who shot last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color) stage the tension between a changing environment and a man who refuses to bow to its winds.

We should be cautious about celebrating his protest in political terms, however. Kidane’s death may seem avoidable to his wife, or to us, but for him there can be no other way. That kind of obstinacy inspires admiration and frustration, and there’s an unnerving equation to be made between Kidane and his unyielding captors. At the trial, the judge is wiser than him. Expressing some degree of remorse, he tells his translator, “Knowing his daughter will soon be an orphan really upsets me, but don’t translate that.” Though he is writing the judgment, he knows how powerless he is before a law he is charged to enact; he is unable, in fact, to record his own reservations. The tragic structure of this film recalls Simone Weil’s reading of the Iliad: all people, both besiegers and besieged, are subject to the destructive and dehumanizing power of war. No matter how Kidane acts, whether he kills a man this time or another, he will be overtaken eventually by these larger forces.

Sissako remarked during the Q&A that the women of the film are stronger than the men, and the stoic Satima proves they are smarter, too. And though Kidane may accept his fate as historical destiny, his daughter may have the opportunity to change hers. We see the girl at the start and closing of the film, in a blurred run, inaudible words forming on her lips, her legs pumping like those of a nearby gazelle. She moves in a way her father could not, aware that she is being chased, but also, perhaps, energized by the possibility of escape.