Faraway: Get Out of Your World
Dreaming of Timbuktu
Do you ever wonder what’s going on in Timbuktu? The ancient city, so far away, and so exotic, is often thought of as a destination one could only get to in a dream. Now you've got a chance to visit Timbuktu beyond your dreams by seeing it on film. An African filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, has produced a story about the recent events in Timbuktu of the past two years as Islamic fundamentalists invaded the beloved city, imposing Sharia law. The film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival this past May and received a ten-minute standing ovation. It has been nominated for an Oscar.
Here is an excerpt from the Hollywood Reporter:
A loving desert family is torn apart by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa in Abderrahmane Sissako’s poetic social outcry.
Timbuktu is a name that conjures up exotic adventure; an important trading post for the Mali empire, in its Golden Age it was a university center of Islamic learning. But after watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating drama, it's likely to become a synonym for the worst excesses of Islamic fundamentalism, which are mercilessly depicted in all their everyday cruelty, horror and stupidity. Despite some narrative weaknesses that dilute the overall emotional impact, Timbuktu is a hard film to forget and once again brings Sissako to the center stage of African cinema. It is also an eye-opener on the methodical spread of Jihadist influence in the sub-Sahara in spite of popular resistance.
As the film opens, the fundamentalists hold control of Timbuktu, presented not as a city (the film was shot in Mauritania) but as bits and pieces of solid red mud walls rising into a blue sky. Outside the town lies the vastness of the desert. Though many of their neighbors have fled, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed ) and his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) live in a traditional open tent with their 12-year-old daughter Toya. The fourth member of the family is Issa, an orphaned boy who tends Kidane’s small herd of eight cattle.
In town the Islamists run around with loudspeakers announcing their latest prohibitions in the name of Allah: music, soccer and smoking are banned outright, and women have to wear socks and gloves in the sweltering heat. A later edict ridiculously bans doing "any old thing in a public place." Underlining the foreignness of these new impositions is the fact that the “Jihadists” don’t speak the local lingo and have to be translated from Arabic into French and English to even make themselves understood. Making them even more unpopular with the locals (who are shown as normal, God-fearing, life-loving Muslims) are the automatic weapons that they look for any excuse to use. When they arrogantly barge into a mosque full of men in prayer, they’re told off by the local imam. But the guns they tote talk with a loud voice and allow them to impose the harshest Shariah laws in kangaroo courts.
Their influence reaches even into the desert, where Kidane and Satima enjoy a little more freedom. Satima and Toya don’t cover their heads, for instance, and Kidane plays his guitar at night. In town such behavior leads to instant arrest and trial, resulting in public lashing or even stoning to death, glimpsed in a brief but horrifying scene. The delicate situation finally explodes over a banal quarrel between Kidane and a local fisherman when the family’s cattle invade his fishing nets. An elemental crime filmed in long shot lights the fuse for tragedy and delivers the characters to their fate in an unexpected finale.
None of this would be so extraordinary had Sissako not set the story in a highly convincing natural world bathed in sunlight and swept by sand. The women’s long flowing dresses add notes of bright color to the archaic scene, while cell phones, motorbikes and trucks remind us what century it is. But the horrors perpetrated by the so-called Jihadists are clearly aimed at casting the populace into the Dark Ages.
Watch the trailer here.
And as a side note, and in reference to the above photo of Koranic Sankore University, the Islamic scholars, who for centuries gathered in Timbuktu and made the city into a center for world knowledge, and created some of the most spectacular libraries housing our most ancient history, have always been known as 'Ambassadors of Peace'. Perhaps the Islamic fundamentalists should examine their roots.
Here is a story in the Guardian about plans to build a new university in Timbuktu. In case you're wondering how the ancient libraries fared during the 10-month occupation by the Islamic fundamentalists, here is an article in the Guardian that has the story on how the local residents and scholars saved most of the valuable writings.