I have been studying African cinema for about three years now, and have mostly focused on representations of neo/postcolonial Africa and Africans. Films like Ousmane Sembène’s, La Noire de…, Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and S. Pierre Yameogo’s Moi et mon blanc figure quite prevalently in my study of the aesthetics and politics of a decolonial African cinema dedicated towards the restitution of African society and the reconstruction of African civilization in the wake of the veritable identarian holocaust which was European colonization. This has often led African cinema to have a markedly anti-European valence, the likes of which can be attributed to the means by which Western Europe contributes to the active process of delimiting an endless African potentiality. Yet, given that African cinema, like African literature, is destined for wider circulation in markedly Euro-American markets, the politics of African cinema’s intellectual and political discourse are always subject to the encroaching Western gaze. African directors create in ways, as Samuel Lelièvre writes, which not only signify an essential(ized) African identity while at the same time perilously working to reinvent the very ideas of Africa and Africans (Lelièvre 51). From this lens, much of African cinema responding evidently to the issues plaguing burgeoning African nations creates the illusion of the perpetually failed state, the broken people and the hopelessly dark continent, insofar that the political project of African cinema is reinscribed by its very ontology as “other.” The question of perspective, audience and vantage recode and rewrite the African film in ways which directors cannot predict or avoid. From its very conception, African cinema has had to contend with not only the political implications of a decolonial medium oftentimes critical of the contemporary regimes in place –censure was a serious threat to the burgeoning African film industry – but they also continually were met with a kind of insurmountable alterity from the perspective of European filmgoers and cinephiles perhaps unfamiliar with Africa outside of what they had been hitherto told, and what few African films they had seen in international festivals.
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.