In April 2012, jihadists identifying themselves as both Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) seized the Malian city of Timbuktu, which they held hostage for another ten months. Although Timbuktu was eventually retaken by soldiers from France, Mali and Chad a little over a year later, the city—population, 54,000—hasn’t been the same, with tourism cratering, construction contracts frozen, and basic day-to-day prices having skyrocketed. Malian-Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako dramatizes the takeover in his spellbinding Timbuktu, but the setting is kept vague: the film takes place in one of the many smaller villages in northern Mali, gently underscoring that the same vulnerabilities apply to towns shorn of the capital city’s mythic melting-pot reputation. Sissako’s film offers a quiet rebuttal against Western stereotyping of Islamic terror: the kalashnikov-wielding invaders hail from all over the Arabian Peninsula, led by a Libyan who doesn’t even speak any of the local languages and must resort to third-hand English translation(!) to enforce his warped, makeshift idea of sharia. The contradictions of itinerant jihad may be on full display, but Sissako’s aim is less point-scoring than a docudrama both world-weary and ironic.
The film—which is having a surprisingly good box office run in France—could not come at a more appropriate time. In saying that, I’m not referencing the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, but rather the latest round of attacks in northeastern Nigeria, in which over two thousand innocent people were massacred by Boko Haram—an event whose coverage in the Western media has been muted at best. As much a cautionary tale as an ensemble act of remembrance, Timbuktu is a much-needed corrective to the numbers game that is Western awarness of Islamofascism; the fear of death comes to Sissako’s desert village not in one fell swoop but in a steady, granular trickle, with the all-too-exploitable geopolitics of the broader situation in Mali kept at a cool-headed remove. The most tragic of events—including the stoning of an unmarried couple, which Sissako claims inspired his first draft—are made all the more devastating for their sobriety of vision, but Sissako’s eye also refuses to flinch before quotidian moments of beauty, however snuffed out they become—giving a stronger imprint, ultimately, to what is lost rather than how it is taken.
I spoke with Sissako following the film’s US premiere at last fall’s New York Film Festival; our conversation is below. When it bows in NYC today, you’ll have no problem looking past—or to use Sissako’s term, “beyond”—facile qualifiers like “world cinema”, and seeing Timbuktu merely for what it is: a masterpiece of anti-sensationalism.
Special thanks to interpreter Ellen Sowcheck for making this interview possible.