Deconstructing the human in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu

There is something beautiful, charming, and disturbing about Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film Timbuktu. In many ways, Timbuktu is a contemporary Yeelen; both films sought to represent the realities of an African often unseen by Western audiences, yet nevertheless, in the process, fix their gaze on that Western audience, perhaps, to the expense of the African public it seeks to represent. And this is truly a dead horse in African cinema studies – the question of African cinema’s inherently Western-bound gaze – that need not be further beaten in this response, although part of the reason I believe Timbuktu to be an exemplary film, not only in the field of African cinema studies, but in film studies writ large, is precisely because of its curious relationship to reception. Given that cinema studies is a vastly American intellectual community, and that the United States remains the hub of cinema criticism, scholarship, and innovation, Timbuktu represents a film whose reception and production allow us to better understand the surprisingly dour relationship between American film publics and critical bodies and non-American, non-Western political aesthetics. Sissako, for one, has never been one to yield to the cinematic expectations which filmgoers are prone to carry with them to the film festival or to the screening. One of the most recognizable marks of his auteurship is the ambiguities of plot in his films; as in Bamako, where the central “plot” is the ongoing trial against neocolonial financial manipulation in Africa, flanked by vignettes of a failing marriage, the disappearance of a police officer’s gun, a bedridden man, and fabric dyers, Timbuktu’s “plot” (Kidane’s accidental killing of Amadou and his subsequent trial and execution) is perhaps its most uninteresting element. From the beautiful cinematography which captures the soft transitions between Sahel and Sahara (for desertification in Northern Mali is an undertone which sings beneath the more palpable discourses of the film), to the artful mélange of humor and tragedy which gives the film a dynamism perhaps only attainable by the documentary, Timbuktu is an exemplary film in almost every way, demonstrating to the Western audience something nuanced about life in Africa, particularly in a political climate often beclouded by American media.

To begin, I want to examine the ways that Timbuktu fits into discourses on Islamic insurgency, and the ways that its relationship to jihadism in West Africa informs and challenges the monolithic notions which figure in the American imaginary of the Global South. Some of the write-ups of the film have claimed the film “humanizes” jihadists insofar that the characters which represent the insurgent group occupying the city of Timbuktu are flawed in ways only attributed to multifoliate – read: human – characters (Okeowo, Woodson, Stone). The degree to which jihadists figures like Abdelkrim and his driver Omar seem unnecessarily complex, granted their violent and surveillant roles in occupied Timbuktu, create the illusion of “humanity,” hence “humanization,” typically escaped through not only their racialized otherness as non-Western brown people, but also because of the sociological conditions which encode Islamic extremism and jihad in the American culture industry. Because all references of Daesh, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram in American media always engage a nationalist rhetoric of the imperiled/menaced homeland or invoke the grammar of an entirely totalitarian, oppressive regime antithetical to Western ideals of democracy, Timbuktu likely appears to the American filmgoer as something similar to – but not quite – an apology for jihadism in the developing world. And Sissako does go out of his way to make you “feel” Abdelkrim’s personality, to see the absurdity behind the scenes of the eerie and cold tele-broadcasts which terrorists groups transmit to the Western world as propaganda, the odd theatricality of behind their motions, the banality of their specific kind of evil. The Western viewer, prone to vilify the entirety of Islam, finds a countertext in the figure of Timbuktu’s imam, whose open reprobation of the militants intimates what Kenneth Harrow refers to as a polity of “good Muslims” in contrast to the hypocritical ideals of the “poor [read: bad] Muslims” (Cazenave et al, 276). In one scene, the militants enter a mosque without following proper religious custom (the removal of shoes, the jettisoning of weapons), earning them admonishment from the imam. To this, the men look on with embarrassment and weakness, their postures signaling a certain powerlessness in the face of the imam as a figure of religious and social authority that even their hegemony of violence cannot capitulate. The imam in Timbuktu is, perhaps, a countertext to the Western totalizing understanding of Islam as a religion which necessarily birthed Islamic extremism, insofar that his understanding of jihad, a word whose multiple significations the imam astutely lays bare to the militant judge. While these sorts of rhetorical strategies do highlight a specifically non-local viewer in their rather bare expositive-ness and moral adjudication of “good vs. bad” Islamic faith and politics, they contribute nevertheless to a discourse on Islam’s social meaning which continues to shape American and European politics in the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis. Many of the migrants attempting to cross into Europe through the Mediterranean are fleeing encroaching violence from the very jihadist groups we see in Timbuktu. It is perhaps for this reason that the poissonière, after her confrontation with the armed militants in the market, speaks aloud, in French, “Moi, je veux partir. Je dois partir.” This is a radical departure from the same woman who, minutes prior, had adamantly requested her own hands be cut off for infringing upon the imposed law that women must not only wear veils (something rather foreign to many West African Muslims) but also must wear gloves, something which complicates her fish trade. Her tear-stained statement is quite brief and typical of Sissako’s decollage-based style of montage, but nevertheless can be read as the ruminations of northernly migration which are more prominent in his other films, most notably Bamako.

 

A Haitian woman, Zabou, stops a car full of militants patrolling the streets of Timbuktu.

I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s study of the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem when watching Timbuktu and engaging its aesthetics of humanization. As Arendt would likely argue today, the means by which a being typically circumscribed as “evil” (itself a constructed, subjective term) is humanized must always involve some process of inherent “dehumanization” which proceeds it. Yet, both of these processes – humanization and dehumanization – are fundamentally related to vantage; in their ontology, terrorists are human beings, regardless of how heinous their crimes may be or how frightening their politics may appear. The human body, however, is not enough, it seems, to convey a kind of unqualified humanity; social information seems to supersede the innate and passive pareidolic acts of human detection insofar that the “human” remains a category we can ascribe and also deprive of a give subject; humanity is a not a given, so much as it is given and taken away. Sissako, however, does not wish to create the archetypal category of the “bad Muslim” as Kenneth Harrow argues, nor is he trying to show the “blame on both sides.” These characters, who cast stones an adulterous couple, leaving their exposed, bloodied heads as a public spectacle, who dance absolvingly to the rhythms of a Black woman being flogged for singing glory to God, are in fact human, although we are prone, through our sense of justice, democracy, human rights, honor and equality, to believe it just to rob them of their humanity, to monstrify them so as to distance them not only from “good Muslims” but from the human being as an inherently moral subject. Sissako does not allow you to do this (easily) for the film’s representation of jihadist militants, which many a survivor of Islamic insurgency in the Sahel region of Africa have referred to as “soft” or “unrealistic,” is uninterested in pandering to a Western idea of the “dehumanized and brute jihadist,” even if the film imagines and anticipates westerly responses (Pasley 295; Cazenave et al 272).

Even the insurgents do not question the authority of Timbuktu’s imam.

Finally, Timbuktu is an excellent exemplar of African film’s relationship to globalization as both a form of content and a means of containment in African cinematic aesthetics and politics. The encroachment of a specifically jihadist, foreign Islam into the ancient town of Timbuktu, famed for its historical significance as a city of Islamic learning and intellectual wealth for Black Africa is quite significant, for it testifies to the ways that Africa continues to serve as the battle ground for competing hegemonies, all of which remains foreign to the African communities over which these great powers seek sovereignty. Islam is not foreign at all to Timbuktu as a locale, nor is it some invading presence in Mali;  the history of Islam in West Africa is perhaps fundamentally bound to Timbuktu as one of the most important cities of Muslim social and intellectual life during the Mali Empire, flowing down and spreading through access to the Niger. The Islam which is practiced in Timbuktu is markedly different than the Islam which is imported, radicalized and imposed on its denizens, and this is one of the major sources of conflict. The poissonnière, for example, is likely a Muslim herself, but her specific rendition of Islam is considered an abomination to the imported tradition “from the North.” Not only are these extremely dour religious conventions something to which even the militants imposing it seem unwilling to commit, but they also directly infringe upon the ways that locals understand their own Islamic faith. That these forces are identified as “coming from Libya” perhaps only outlines a series of social tensions (Maghrebin v. Sub-Saharan Africa, north v. south, Black v. Brown, nomad v. sedentary, Touareg v. Bambara, etc.). This is a markedly different globalizing force than is seen in Bamako, where the accused party is “globalization” à la Western (read: European) financial institutions retarding African development, although both ideas are founded in similar ideologies of African primitivity and paganism and the seeming necessity to expand in order to maintain the livelihood of the “nation.” In the process of imperializing Timbuktu, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the decisions which the militants have taken to occupy and bring that city under their hegemony directly infringes upon the central tenets of Islam in the same ways that the European “Scramble for Africa” contravened the universalist tenets of citizenship and enfranchisement.

One of the film’s more painful sections is the sequence when a praise singer is flogged for music-making, which had been prohibited by the insurgents. Noteworthy is the fact that she is worshiping God in her singing.

There is, of course, much more to be said about this film. As someone who studies representation and reception in Francophone African film, I believe Timbuktu represents an exemplar of how film should serve as a vehicle for social discourse perhaps beyond the more didactic films which constructed early African cinema. Sissako remains one of Africa’s most enigmatic, major filmmakers because his films often resist the engagement of an Ousmane Sembène or a Djibril Mambety Diop or a Cheick Oumar Sissoko. It is difficult to really say what Timbuktu is about, other than jihadism in Northern Mali, a summary which does so rich and beautiful a film no favors at all. This film deserves far more attention than it has been given, primarily because the scholarship on this film – which, like all African cinema with the exception, perhaps, of La Noire de…, is quite neglected – focuses on its “controversy” or its representations of violence. These ideas, interestingly enough, are antithetical; some argue that the film is “too soft” on extremists, others that the film’s bare depictions of corporeal violence are perhaps too aesthetically and semiotically intense. As is the cast for most of African cinema, it is a shame that Timbuktu will likely remain somewhat adjacent to the historical study of cinema, primarily because it is 1) so new 2) from a region of the world to which cinema arrived relatively late in its development. Nevertheless, I will likely teach Timbuktu in any course dealing with globalization, representation, racial/ethnic conflict or women’s rights in the postcolonial world, for the film lends itself so richly to an array of thematic approaches. Hopefully, in doing so, I will bring more attention to this exemplarily discursive film and this phenomenally talented auteur.

 

Bibliography

Cazenave, Odile, et al. “Timbuktu – the Controversy.” African Studies Review, vol. 59, no. 3, Dec. 2016, pp. 267–93. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/asr.2016.91.

Harrow, Kenneth W. Trash: African Cinema from Below. Indiana University Press, 2013. orbis.library.yale.edu Library Catalog, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/yale/Doc?id=10666278.

Higgins, MaryEllen, et al., editors. The Western in the Global South. Routledge, 2015.

Okeowo, Alexis. “A Movie That Dares to Humanize Jihadists.” The New Yorker, Mar. 2015. www.newyorker.com, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-movie-that-dares-to-humanize-jihadists-timbuktu.

Pasley, Victoria. “Beyond Violence in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu.” African Studies Review, vol. 59, no. 3, Dec. 2016, pp. 294–301. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/asr.2016.92.

Stone, Alan A. “Human Frailties.” Boston Review, 30 Apr. 2015, http://bostonreview.net/film/alan-stone-timbuktu-abderrahmane-sissako.

Tchouaffe, Olivier-Jean. The Poetics of Radical Hope in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Film Experience. Lexington Books, 2017.

Woodson, Alex. “Ethics of Film:  Discussion of ‘Timbuktu.’” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/ethics_onfilm/0015. Accessed 2 May 2018.

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