not in our stars, but in ourselves
52/52: A movie by an African filmmaker*
Here in the West, and in America especially, we tend to view the world in absolute terms. One might say that we view the world in black and white, even. It’s utterly unheard of for us to think of the vague, shadowy, menacing mass that is ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh, as anything but a group of marauding villains. They are that, of course, but they’re also human beings. In Timbuktu, we see not only the meaningless horror that they inflict – safe within the confines of their conquering group of religious zealots – but also the way that horror and meaninglessness corrodes their souls. People are people, wherever you go.
In Timbuktu, the Islamic Police have come racing to town, brandishing rifles and flags. They have new rules by which they expect their new subjects to abide: no music, no sports, no adultery (which includes an unmarried couple simply being in the same room together), no murder, no working women: nothing except their idiosyncratic, medieval, highly subjective interpretation of Islam. Timbuktu’s imam (Abdel Mamoud Cherif) tries to reason with them, and to explain that their practices are ultimately harmful to Muslims and to Islam itself, but they brush him off. When he challenges them for wearing shoes and bringing weapons into a mosque, saying that it’s un-Islamic and they shouldn’t, one fires back, “We can. We’re doing jihad.” On the outskirts, among the sand dunes and scrubs, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Kidane raises cattle, and his favorite of his eight-member tribe is called GPS. While drinking in the river, GPS wanders into a fisherman’s net, and the fisherman kills GPS. Kidane is outraged, and confronts the fisherman, accidentally killing him in the process. The new sheriff, as it were, finds out quickly and arrests Kidane. Without him at home, his wife and daughter are especially vulnerable, particularly given certain Islamic Police members’ tendency to “arrest” pretty young girls and then force them to marry. The people of Timbuktu react defiantly to all these absurd new rules, but as the conquering non-heroes carry through on their threats, they realize they’re up against something as insidious and deadly as cancer.
Abderrahmane Sissako never presents any of the jihadists’ actions as worthy, noble, or defensible, because they’re not. However, he lets us see that they are – whether we want to admit it or not – human beings, just like the rest of us. One jihadist, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), calls on Satima whenever her husband is out. While it’s creepy and predatory behavior, he’s not such a monster that he ever does anything more than call on her. He’s a man with a crush. Granted, he’s a man with warped religious mores with a crush – but he’s not far off St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, really. Other jihadists discuss the virtues of Zidane versus Messi, and the embarrassing state of France’s football team. Still others struggle to explain why they’ve turned their back on fun things like rap and alcohol to embrace their new, draconian existence. Still, draconian is just the word for it, and the lowest common denominator wins out – as it does in any large group. A man who owned a football and confessed to it is sentenced to twenty lashes; a woman who sang along with guitar accompaniment is sentenced to forty lashes plus an additional forty because her parents are in Timbuktu; and an unmarried, unrelated couple is buried up to their necks in the sand and then stoned to death – for the supposed crime of adultery. All the jihadists in the town go along with these punishments, even if we see them wrestle with some private doubts throughout.
And of course, these kinds of things are always especially bad for the women. Sissako focuses on women as the voices of reason, the guardians of true morality. Satima tells her husband plainly that she’s afraid, but he doesn’t want to leave. He likes their home, so he wants them to stay. An eccentric townswoman, Zabou (Kettly Noël), openly calls jihadists “connards” and refuses to abide by their wardrobe prescriptions: she wears her short hair with bright red ribbons tied in it; she wears a vibrant blue, gold, and red dress that flows behind her wherever she goes; she wears red patent pumps; and she bares not only her hands – in direct defiance of the jihadists’ order that all women wear gloves and socks, in addition to head scarves – but her full arms. Zabou isn’t about to let these puny men treat her like anything but the queen she is, and I hope she makes it out okay. The women are the only ones who dare speak out against the new orders, and none of the jihadists are able to articulate why those new orders have taken effect. It’s all just misogyny, of course, but there’s probably not much in the Koran to support that particular worldview.
It’s horribly medieval, and that’s what Daesh and all are after: plunging the world either into all-out mutually assured destruction, or into the Dark Ages. Why? Who can tell. Perhaps a world in which untrammeled masculinity runs rampant, with guns and pickup trucks and compliant women (whether or not the women like it), is and has always been appealing to a certain kind of morally degenerate man – whether in Timbuktu in the 21st century, Berlin in the 1930s, internet chatrooms since time immemorial, or anywhere else throughout recorded history – and will continue to be so. Sissako isn’t interested in easy answers or condemnations. Instead, he provides a hypnotically sad and humanist film about the toll – whether physical or spiritual – of this latest holy war.
*As a side note: do you know how difficult it was to track down a film by an African filmmaker, any African filmmaker, on any major streaming services? Or even YouTube, for that matter? Because Timbuktu happened to get some international attention at Cannes, it was available on iTunes. I’m glad it was, but what about Sembène? What about Mambéty? What about Téno? And those are just directors I’ve heard of – meaning that there are thousands of other movies by other filmmakers that are, for dumb Westerners like me, basically inaccessible. Africa is a huge continent with a huge variety of cinematic offerings. Please, powers that be, help nitwits like me find them more easily.