Watching a film like Timbuktu, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what the film would look like if it was made in Hollywood. In the hands of an American director, the story of a jihadist occupation of a city would undoubtedly show the dramatic takeover in the first act and the heroic arrival of the French in the final moments to rescue the oppressed Malians. In Abderrahmane Sissako’s hands however the occupation of a city is not to be exploited for dramatic purposes. This is not a story of revenge or heroism, but one of the sad and mundane realities of the Jihadist occupation of Timbuktu.
Much like his earlier film Bamako, Sissako proves to be more concerned with the politics of the situation and the effect on all of the characters, than in forcing some sort of false heroic narrative. What’s fascinating about this film is how it makes you rethink heroic narratives and how in situations such as those represented in this film, heroism is not found in gun-slinging vigilantes, but in ordinary everyday resistance, such as refusing to wear mandatory gloves while selling fish in the market place.
The film reveals a particularly African way of looking at the world, one that contrasts with the Western model in a painfully obvious way, particularly when you take into account the criticism the film received after winning the César Award in France. An imam at a mosque ejects the invaders during prayer at the beginning of the film, in a moment of Islamic resistance. But later in the film when he tries to reason with the men who have kidnapped and forced a girl to marry one of their men, the imam’s power has vanished.
The purpose of this is to subtly show the growing power madness of the invaders. They take over the city in the name of Allah, but after a short time they begin to administer justice as if they are gods themselves. The post-César criticisms revolved around the fact that Sissako showed the humanity of the jihadists. He didn’t turn them into orcs, tearing at each others’ throats in between bouts of wanton murder. They talk about soccer, they get abused by natives and slowly they let the power get to their heads. Sissako does this to show just how quickly the mundane realities of invasion are replaced by murder disguised as justice.