The Academy Award-nominated film "Timbuktu" explores the war within Islam.
- By Christian CarylChristian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest.
It’s that time of year again: The Oscars are approaching. To be honest, I usually don’t pay much attention. Most entertainment awards these days seem to be dull and bloated exercises in self-congratulation.
Yet there’s no denying that the prizes they hand out at these events still have the power to turn the spotlight of publicity on important works. This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a chance to make a statement. They can do it by honoring the latest film by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako.
His movie, Timbuktu, is nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Sissako’s film clearly faces tough competition; several of the others it’s up against have received lots of attention and good reviews. I don’t doubt that they’re also entirely worthy.
But here’s why I think Timbuktu deserves the nod. It dares to tackle one of the most urgent topics of our time, yet it’s also a magnificent work of art. It celebrates the force of love and the resilience of humanity even as it delves deep into the nature of evil. It’s been a while since I saw a film that pulls off a comparable feat.
I may be biased. In 2013 I had the great privilege to take a trip to the legendary city in northern Mali that gives the film its title. I arrived not long after a combined force of French and Malian troops had put an end to Timbuktu’s 10-month occupation by a group of radical Islamists, allied with Tuareg separatists, who had imposed their own harsh version of sharia on the city’s residents — virtually all of whom are themselves Muslims. The local people told me countless tales of how the jihadis — many of them foreigners who couldn’t even communicate in the local languages — made their lives miserable.
The occupiers’ ultraconservative brand of Islam went so far, indeed, that they ended up destroying the ancient tombs of Sufi saints and burning precious ancient manuscripts they deemed to be insufficiently pure. Everywhere I went in the city I noticed the eerie calling cards of the occupation — the billboards and signs where the jihadis had carefully blotted out every human image. No one had gotten around to restoring them yet. (They also float throughout the background of the film.)
Sissako bases Timbuktu on these real events, yet he transmutes them into a story that transcends the headlines. The film doesn’t show us how the radical Islamists have managed to establish control over the city; their presence is already given, a looming and inescapable fact. “Football is forbidden,” one young holy warrior intones through a bullhorn. “Music is forbidden.” Forbidden, as a matter of fact, is “any old thing” — a telling comment on the modern-day Salafi Islamists who claim they’re trying to yank society back to a primal and “uncorrupted” version of their religion.
In fact, Sissako implies, these jihadis are thoroughly modern radicals who are reinventing Islam to serve their own twisted purposes. Their tyrannical strictures run directly counter to the city’s long-standing religious traditions, which are shaped by its position squarely on the cultural dividing line between black Africa and the desert cultures of the Sahara. Sissako hones the point with scenes in which a local imam disputes the new rulers’ idiosyncratic worldview — as when they invade his mosque carrying guns and wearing shoes. “You cause harm to Islam and Muslims,” he tells them quietly. “Where’s God in all this?”
Timbuktians, of course, try to go on doing what they do. A woman in the market has already submitted to the imposition of an all-enveloping hijab, but she draws the line at donning gloves as well. (Quite reasonably, since she makes her living selling fish.) Elusive musicians confound the vice and virtue squad with a lovely tune that praises Allah: “Should we arrest them?” a bewildered trooper asks his commander. In one particularly haunting scene, boys on a dusty field evade the ban on soccer by playing an exuberant game with an imagined ball. Life has a way of asserting its own imperatives.
Sissako doesn’t flinch from the darker side of the story. The scene in which the town’s rulers submit two accused adulterers to death by stoning is hard to watch. In another, a young woman weeps, and sings, as she endures a vicious lashing imposed for the crime of music. (Mali has an unbelievably rich musical heritage, and it’s reflected in the movie’s lush but unobtrusive soundtrack.) The film culminates in an execution that takes an unexpected and heartbreaking turn. I don’t want to spoil the moment, but suffice it to say that human beings are at times so eager to reclaim their own freedom that they’re willing to embrace death in the process.
One of the great strengths of Timbuktu is its insistence on showing the jihadis as human beings rather than caricatures. They’re arrogant and brutal, make no mistake, but Sissako wants us to see how they, too, become tangled up in their own unforgiving ideology. Among themselves, the same young fighters who lecture the locals on the ills of soccer lapse into gossip about Real Madrid. A commander ducks behind a sand dune for a smoke. Needless to say, none of this absolves them of their crimes. As Sissako told an interviewer: “To portray a jihadist as simply a bad guy, who does not in any way resemble me, who’s completely different, that’s not completely true.”
Timbuktu packs a powerful punch; its images and dialogue linger in the mind. That has a lot to do with the fact that it’s a film that comes from inside the world that it describes. Sissako comes from Mauritania, which has a long border with Mali; both countries have majority Muslim populations and similar ethnic complexities. The “West,” as such, is almost completely absent from the film (except for one brief throwaway scene near the beginning involving a bewildered European hostage).
As a result, Sissako reveals, with almost unbearable intimacy, that the current turmoil plaguing the Muslim world is, indeed, as much a war within Islam as it is anything else. For this reason his film should be required viewing for those who want the West to declare a generational civilizational war on the Islamic world. And it’s for this same reason that the Academy has a chance to send a powerful signal by giving a prize to this film.
I’ve written a lot about politics here, for good reason, but ultimately Timbuktu is simply a magnificent movie. If you want to see it, be sure to pick a theater with a big screen and a great sound system. I guarantee that you’ll be swept away.