Adonis Diaries

The movie Timbuktu: pain, beauty and humor. Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya

Posted on: December 22, 2016

The movie Timbuktu: pain, beauty and humor

BEIRUT: A football bounces down a flight of stairs, landing at the feet of three men. One of them picks up the ball and holds it up to a fellow walking past.“Is this yours?”

“No,” the fellow answers abruptly, raising his hands as if in surrender. “I swear.”

The three men are packing Kalashnikovs but it’s still an odd response.

Jim Quilty published in the Daily Star this Mar. 12, 2015

Timbuktu’s pain, beauty and humor

When Islamist militants took possession of northern Mali in 2012, they enforced a literalist version of religious law that banned many common practices. Their stringent, intolerant vision of Islam seemed particularly heavy-handed in Timbuktu, the ancient center of Muslim learning noted for its tolerance.

A few stories leaked into the international media – images of ancient shrines being denounced as idols and attacked with sledgehammers, of entire libraries of ancient Islamic and pre-Islamic manuscripts pitched into bonfires – all anticipating recent footage of ISIS’ gleeful destruction of ancient artifacts in northern Iraq.

One execution, dutifully put online by northern Mali’s Islamist occupiers, showed the parents of two children being stoned to death – deemed criminals because they were unmarried. This footage, and the Islamist occupation generally, provoked Abderrahmane Sissako to make his critically lauded, award-winning 2014 feature “Timbuktu.”

The film’s plot centers on a pastoral family – Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and their shepherd boy Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). Satima and Kidane are torn between whether to remain in their homeland or to leave, as so many of their friends have done. The film charts the consequences of their decision to stay.

The family’s story is set within a collage of vignettes illustrating the incongruities – sometimes comic, always tragic – of the largely foreign rulers’ version of Islam and that of the town’s actual residents.

Sitting in front of your house is declared illegal, as is wearing trousers that cover the lower part of the leg. When the moral police nag one resident to roll up his baggy trousers to the newly prescribed length, he sighs, pulls them off and throws them over one shoulder, continuing down the street in his underwear.

In addition to the hijab, women, on the other hand, are ordered to cover their feet and legs and their hands.

Football too is banned but if you acknowledge that the sport was forbidden – as one Timbuktu football fan learns when he goes before the judge – he may decide not to have you flogged.

Football is among the motifs of “Timbuktu,” providing the premise of one of the film’s more beautiful sequences.

After the judge decides not to have a football fan whipped for his immoral behavior, the scene jumps directly to a dusty football pitch where two squads of youngsters are rallying up and down, battling for possession until, ultimately, one side scores.

The fact that they’re playing with an imaginary football makes the scene all the more potent.

A pair of Islamists, faces swaddled in turbans, approach on motorbike. The youngsters stop playing and pretend to do calisthenics until the patrol moves on. Such bitter comedy is at home in this story.

Adept as Sissako is at sketching the sad absurdities of Islamic militancy in practice, his film is not anti-Muslim. As the writer-director pointed out to the audience of a master class he gave in Doha this week, he felt compelled to make this film because this version of Salafi Islam is diametrically opposed to the tolerant, humanist form of the religion he knew growing up in Mali and Mauritania.

When the gunmen carry out particularly egregious acts – marching armed into the town’s main mosque or kidnapping a young woman and marrying her to a gunman, without her permission or that of her parents – the imam of Timbuktu’s mosque speaks on behalf of the place’s humanist faith.

Ghoulish and stupid as their actions are, the men occupying Timbuktu are marked by all too human frailties. An early sequence shows gunmen marching a North African man into the frame and handing him over to the town’s new rulers.

The man is blindfolded like a prisoner but, upon arriving, it’s clear he too is a militant.

Timbuktu’s Islamist regime, it seems, simply doesn’t trust its recruits to know precisely where they are. His guides are careful, though, to instruct his new colleagues in the complex schedule of meds he must take.

Since a significant number of the militants – principally Abu Hassan (Salem Dendou), the chief, and his lieutenant Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), who lusts after Satima – are North Africans who don’t speak North Malian dialects, translation (and incomprehension) is central to Sissako’s story, churning up moments of comedy and accentuating stupidity.

This element of the narrative helps lend “Timbuktu” a universality that elevates it well beyond the modest goals of docudrama. It resonates at a much higher pitch, too, with its visual beauty – a feature it shares with Sissako’s previous works – thanks to cinematographer Sofiane El Fani.

“Timbuktu” has been collecting prizes since its world premiere at Cannes in May. The film’s most noted accomplishments include its nomination for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars last month and, a few days before that, the seven Césars (aka “French Oscars”) taken by Sissako, Fani and their colleagues.

Determined folk have had access to digitized pirate versions of “Timbuktu” on their computers for some time now, of course, but Beirut will be officially able to see what all the fuss has been about when the film screens at the Beirut Souks shopping mall Thursday evening.

The projection marks the opening of the eighth edition of Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya (Beirut Cinema Days). Founded and run by Beirut Development and Cinema, a cultural organization comprised of once-aspiring filmmakers and their fellow travelers, Ayam Beirut is a festival for filmmakers and film lovers as interested in society as aesthetics.

Since its inception, the country’s sole festival of Arabic cinema has been a bi-yearly, noncompetitive event, eschewing the ersatz glamour preoccupying most major film events in favor of having talented (often younger) filmmakers present their work to the public and conduct master classes with their colleagues.

This edition will provide a platform for the Lebanese premiere of 11 feature-length fictions, 18 feature-length docs and 12 shorts. The festival will project the latest works of local heroes Ghassan Salhab and Akram Zaatari as well as new works by younger artists like Bassem Fayad and Ahmad Ghossein.

The latest work by well-known regional artists Mohamad Malas (Syria), Samir (Iraq/Switzerland) and Rashid Masharawi (Palestine) will be projected, alongside award-winning, critically lauded and aesthetically bold work by younger filmmakers – Naji Abu Nowar (Jordan), Hicham Lasri (Morocco), Nadine Salib (Egypt), Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan (Palestine/Canada).

The feature-length doc lineup includes two of 2014’s three most-feted works on the Syrian conflict – “Silvered Water,” the searing work of Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, and Talal Derki’s “Return to Homs.”

Most all these filmmakers are more or less Arab but the fiction program has been pleasantly augmented with “Leviathan,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s critically lauded film from 2014.

“Timbuktu” will be projected at Cinemacity Beirut Souks, Thursday at 7:30p.m. Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya continues at locations around Beirut through 21 March. For more information, see

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December 2016

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