Notes From the Margins…

Abderramane Sissako’s Timbuktu Blues

  • January 05, 2016
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I have nothing against cinema as recreational entertainment, or going to the movies for the sake of escapism.  Cinema has always served these purposes, and there is nothing inherently ignoble about them.   But such expectations also tend to produce an awful lot of mass-produced ephemeral dross and formulaic over-hyped blockbusters drenched in Dolby sound and  CGI effects, with emotions and messages pitched at the average 12-year-old with a full bag of popcorn.

2015, like most years, was dominated by films like this, whether it was the frenetic and vacuous inanity of Mad Max Fury Road or the new Star Wars.  But that wasn’t all there was to it.  As is the case every year,  a trickle of films continued to aspire to art as well as entertainment, and you.won’t find a better example of the former than Abderrahmane Sissako’s magnificent Timbuktu, which I saw last night.

Set during the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by the Salafist/Jihadist group Ansar Dine, Timbuktu is a beautiful, poetic and overwhelmingly powerful response to the fanaticism and dim-witted cultural reductionism practiced by Ansar Dine and so many other jihadist groups..

Sissako’s primary focus is the cultural repression inflicted on Timbuktu and northern Mali by Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, who imposed the most rigid and harsh Sharia law on the areas they occupied.  From the opening sequences of an antelope fleeing a group of armed jihadist hunters in the desert, followed by  a scene in which the same men riddle  wooden and clay sculptures with bullets,  Sissako depicts jihadism as a violent and alien intrusion into the rich cultural spaces of northern Mali and the Sahara.

Sissako’s jihadists are not depicted as monsters, even though their actions are monstrous.   They are clods, tyrants and fanatics, and also hypocrites.   They ban smoking while secretly smoking themselves.  They ban football and argue with each other over whether France really won the World Cup.   They fancy the same women who they order to cover themselves.  They attempt to dialogue with the people under their control and recruit them to their cause, but when  these attempts fail they impose their demands through coercion and the threat of violence.

The jihadists are mostly ignorant  of the societies they have taken over.  They don’t speak the local languages and don’t understand local traditions.  This ignorance is revealed in a number of  telling and sometimes comical scenes; when a group of jihadists enter a mosque where the locals are praying, the Imam asks them why they have come to a place of prayer with guns and boots on and orders them out.   In another scene, a despairing fishmonger berates the jihadists who order her to wear gloves when selling fish and points out that this restriction is completely impractical and that her honour does not need protecting.

Sissako is particularly concerned with the jihadists’ attempt to obliterate Mali’s world-famous musical traditions.   In one scene, a group of armed jihadists sent to stop some of the residents of Timbuktu from playing music discover that the musicians are singing songs of praise to God and the Prophet and are forced to call their superiors to ask what to do..  In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, armed jihadists interrupt a joyful domestic singing session and arrest its participants.

The female singer, played by the great Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, receives eighty lashes as a punishment, and in the middle of her brutal whipping she begins to sing.  Such resistance permeates the film.   Sissako shows the inhabitants of Timbuktu arguing with the jihadists and refusing to accept their restrictions or their forced marriages.  In one marvelously witty and beautiful scene,  a group local youths play football without the ball that has been confiscated.

In another episode the herdman’s wife Satima is washing her hair.  When  a jihadist who is clearly attracted to her orders her to cover it, she tells him to stop looking if it offends him and asks him why he always comes to visit her when her husband is not around.  There are so many great moments like this.    Some of them are deftly comical, but  if  Sissako is willing to mock the stupidity and the hypocrisy of the jihadists he portrays, he also shows their violence and cruelty in a film that acquires its emotional punch slowly and almost languorously before building up to its shattering conclusion.

At the core of the film is a tale of an accidental murder which unfolds as relentlessly as a Greek tragedy or a tale by Chinua Achebe, and which ultimately dooms its central characters, as it intersects with the wider tragedy of the jihadist occupation.  Timbuktu is not an indictment of Islam itself.  On the contrary, Sissako makes it clear that there many forms and expressions of Islam and that many of them are to be found in the ancient desert melting pot of Timbuktu itself.

His film is nevertheless an essential and unforgettable meditation on the global tragedy that we have all become so depressingly familiar with in the 21st century.  To have done all this with such lyricism, humour, compassion and understated insight is a really triumphant achievement.  Like every great film, Timbuktu is the sum of its parts.  From the music and cinematography, to the acting, script and direction, it is absolutely flawless.

In short readers, we are talking about an authentic cinematic masterpiece, which reminds us that cinema can still tell us vital stories about the world we actually live in rather than merely help us try to escape from it.

And if you see no other film from 2015, you really must see this, by any means possible.


  1. Mike

    5th Jan 2016 - 9:59 pm

    Dear Matt, good to see that you found your way to Timbuktu, which I drew your attention to about a year ago after the Charlie Hebdo killings. It is indeed a magnificent film which I’d like to see again. I read an interesting story – I think it was in the Economist at Christmas – about a group of monks from Minnesota who have been helping the imans and other archivists in Mali to create a digital library of the thousands of manuscripts which were smuggled out of the city in 2012 and 2013 when the jihadis started their war of terror on the civilian populace. It seems that there has been exemplary collaboration between the Christians and the Muslims to make sure that the historical records are not lost or destroyed. We need such glimmers of good works in these dark times when our politicians deliver nothing but the prospect of more madness, bigotry and violence. And I loved the landscapes in the film, not to mention the cow called GPS. And the football game is cinema at its very best.

  2. Paul Seligman

    5th Jan 2016 - 11:34 pm

    I saw this many months ago and while I would recommend seeing it, I didn’t think it was as wonderful as Matt or many others do. An important story, with some good scenes, but some of the film making feels over contrived to me. I won’t go into details but certainly not a flawless masterpiece in my view.

    For contrast, try the documentary ‘They will have to kill us first’ (not just because I get a small funding credit at the end!). It’s the same context – the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali – but seen through the eyes of some of the musicians who left and want to return. Also not perfect – about 20 minutes too long for the material and not enough music! – but another perspective on what happens in such situations.

    The band mainly featured – Songhoy Blues – are back in London on May 21st at the Roundhouse if you like Malian music. I very much enjoyed their Cardiff gig last year.

    Taken as a complementary pair, these two films do tell us something about the situation.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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