This evening we saw Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’, and a truly miserable film it was too – but quite a good one. It was well made, and often well acted, but it had been a long time since a film had made me so angry. I left the cinema hating the human race, and as we walked back to the car I said to P. that the best thing that could happen would be for the entire human race – this cancer growing on the earth – to be completely wiped out.

(details below)

When I went to see a film about the occupation of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine jihadists I certainly wasn’t expecting anything cheerful, but neither had I expected the film to make me quite so angry. I think the fact that it did says a lot about how well it was made. None of the characters were cardboard cut-out goodies and baddies, and even the worst of the jihadists were portrayed as real people with their good and bad points. They mostly seemed to really believe that what they were doing was good, and in slightly different circumstances they all could have been normal citizens whom you’d hardly notice if you were living next door to them. OK, most of them probably wouldn’t really be ‘nice people’, but rather the arrogant sort who think they’re better than everyone else and deserve more from life; they’d be ruthless businessmen, unscrupulous landlords, bosses who tyrannise their staff, the sort of people who act like arseholes in traffic or who get drunk and beat their wives, but they wouldn’t be going around killing people.

Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

The citizens of Timbuktu were also very much real people with their good and bad points, as shown by what could be described as the main storyline of the film, a story which had practically nothing to do with the religious/political background: a cow destroys a fisherman’s nets, the fisherman kills the cow, the owner of the cow goes to have it out with the fisherman with a loaded gun in his pocket and ends up killing him, more or less by accident. His trial under sharia law does seem a bit perfunctory, and the demand for ‘blood money’ (set at 40 cows in this case, while the guy only had seven) or forgiveness by the victim’s family does seem primitive and certainly not what we’d call ‘fair’, but even without sharia law the guy may well have ended up with a death sentence in many countries. The normal citizens found the jihadists annoying, but seemed to pretty well accept them as part of life. They’re extremists, who perhaps go too far, and life was a lot easier before they arrived, but basically they’re on the right side: we know we’re sinners who could do better, and these people are forcing us to be good. I was reminded of the attitude to the law and the police that I’ve seen in lots of drug users: not anger at an unreasonable infringement on their rights, but the feeling they’re doing something naughty and that if they’re careless and unfortunate enough to get caught, then it’s only reasonable that they’ll be punished.

The reason for the Timbuktu citizens’ attitude is quite clear as far as I’m concerned: the extremist actions of the jihadists are really just an extension of ‘normal’ religion. The jihadists might force women to wear gloves and socks on the street, but those same women would willingly cover their heads in public and would never dream of showing a bare arm, leg or belly in the way that European women do (and, I might add, just as the average European’s disapproval of public nakedness is a less extreme example of exactly the same principle). When one of the jihadists marries a girl without getting her parents’ permission it’s regarded as immoral, but if her parents had given their permission it would have been OK – no matter what she thought about it. The point is that once you admit the principle that what is and isn’t morally acceptable has all been written down in a book by God, and that certain wise men are qualified to interpret this old, obscure and difficult book for the average person (which coincidentally happens to put them into a position of power), then it’s fairly arbitrary how they happen to interpret the book and how far they will go in imposing their interpretation, so you don’t know how it’s going to end. Sometimes it leads to a peaceful, well-ordered society where everyone is happy except for a minority of deviant ‘sinners’, but it can just as easily lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-burning or modern fundamentalism. The traditional, moderate imam in Timbuktu seems like a nice enough chap, perhaps even a wise old man, and his interpretation of the Koran is probably as friendly and peaceful as the average English vicar’s interpretation of the Old Testament, but the principle behind their lives and beliefs is the same principle which leads directly to the jihadists. The feeling this film left me with was that their evil wasn’t something specifically ‘jihadist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’ or ‘Islam’, but just an extreme example of something very normal and very human, i.e. religion. And the reason for my misanthropic feelings after seeing it was the knowledge that the vast majority of the human race, now and throughout history, have fallen into this trap to one extent or another, and that we, the sensible, reasonable few who dare to think for ourselves, have always been a minority.

So, a well-made film and definitely an interesting one, but it also had its faults. Life in Timbuktu (apart from the presence of the jihadists, that is) looked a bit too idyllic to be true: every scene is picturesque, everyone is clean and beautiful, and they seem to spend all their time playing music, drinking tea, looking lovingly into each others’ eyes and generally having a very relaxed life. As one reviewer on IMDb put it: “sometimes you have the impression that you’re watching a documentary on National Geographic Channel, showing the beauty of Mali”. And for my taste there were also too many strange, unexplained things in the film. For instance the arrival of the blindfolded guy at the start of the film; I assumed he was a prisoner or a journalist, but he turned out to be one of the jihadists. Then there was the eccentric woman with her chickens, who was able to defy the new rules and walk around singing to herself, bare-headed, bare-footed and without gloves; I expected her to get into trouble sooner or later, but no, she was left in peace while other women were rounded up for the slightest offence. The guy shooting his machine gun at a bush in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason, the jihadist doing a strange sort of dance in which he seemed to be impersonating a bird, the sudden appearance of dozens of cows at one point, the strange scene at the end when the motorcyclist is chased into the desert… the list goes on and on. I’m not the sort of filmgoer who needs to see every detail explained, but there are limits. So, not a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned, not even a small one, but a good film nonetheless which would stay in my mind for days to come.



title Timbuktu
director Abderrahmane Sissako
released 2014
language various
subtitles français
seen 13/01/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb


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