Photograph: Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Cohen Media Group

French viewers were enthralled by Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. The Mauritanian film, made with French collaboration, swept the César Awards with seven prizes, including best film, best director, best original screenplay (for Sissako with Kessen Tall), and best cinematography (for Sofian El Fani). It was Mauritania’s first ever Oscar nomination, and though it lost to the Polish film Ida, which looks back to the Holocaust, Timbuktu may be a more lasting cinematic achievement, set among present Islamic fundamentalist conflicts and looking to the future.

For the French, struggling with the threat of jihadist terrorism to their culture and values, here was an Islamic voice that seemed to embrace them. And if there is such a thing as a French aesthetic, Sissako offers that as well. Timbuktu is elegant and beautiful, one of those rare films that can truly be described as poetic. It begins in silence with a desperate gazelle in flight across the desert landscape. Then we hear automatic weapons. From a truck full of Arab jihadists, who appear to be flying the black flag of ISIS, a voice cries out, “Don’t kill it!” They want to tire the creature, exhaust it, force it into submission. Sissako thinks of that image as a synecdoche for all that follows. “The animal at the start encapsulates everything. It is the beauty the jihadists want to imprison,” he told an interviewer. In the next scene we see a lineup of African statuary, tribal religious idols and reminders of the African influence on Picasso and much twentieth-century French art. One of the jihadists destroys the statues with his AK-47.

Sissako’s images at first portray the jihadists as crazed fanatics. But then he pulls back. We see the same men leading a blindfolded captive in Western dress, presumably to be decapitated or shot in his non-believing head. Instead the blindfold is removed; he is given his horn-rimmed glasses and courteously presented with his daily medications. Sissako refuses to demonize his terrorists. We will discover that he speaks for a humanity to which even they belong.

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Sissako was born in Mauritania but moved with his family to neighboring Mali, his father’s homeland, where he grew up during years of student protest and political conflict. He went on to study at the Federal State Film Institute in Moscow.

Eventually he immigrated to France, but he makes films in Africa. Although little known in the United States, he is one of the few sub-Saharan filmmakers who has earned an international reputation. In Timbuktu he takes on the struggle within Islam and its impact on ordinary Africans. His focus is the 2012 occupation of northern Mali and the city of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, a Tuareg jihadist group. They were driven out, but not before they had imposed sharia law and destroyed precious archives of Islamic documents, legacies of medieval Timbuktu and its great Islamic scholars.

This may be madness, or it may be poetry.

Sissako’s film is as much allegory as documentary. Like other European auteurs, he rejects the Hollywood approach of a studio-approved screenplay produced on a set budget. Sissako began with a few ideas and almost no financial resources; he brainstormed with the actors and crew as the film evolved.

On a first viewing, the film evokes a mysterious beauty and apparent simplicity, but there is great complexity to its artistry. At its heart is a character many will find baffling. Zabou (Kettly Noël), a Haitian dancer who immigrated to Africa to share her vocation, has been interpreted by most Western film critics as a madwoman or Sybil. In one scene she describes the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, how her own body cracked along with the earth. This may be madness, or it may be poetry. It speaks to how Africans suffer together with the suffering inflicted on their homelands.

Repeated viewings reveal Zabou’s character—and her importance to Sissako—more fully. To broaden his lens beyond Mali and beyond Islam, and to open up the film to the larger world of the African diaspora, Sissako imagined a woman whose magical powers of vodou could oppose the jihadists. She makes appearances throughout the film, each more meaningful than the last. She goes about the village in an elaborate, bedraggled gown with a train that stretches yards behind her. The viewer is invited to find her ridiculous, but then sees her stop a truckload of jihadists in their tracks by holding out her hand. It is a crucial image. What can keep the insurgency of militant Islam from imposing its will in the name of true faith? Sissako has no real-world answer, but as an artist he envisions this moment when a woman holds back the jihad.

Zabou’s most dramatic appearance is also one of the hardest to understand. An unmarried couple is being stoned to death in accordance with sharia. (Such punishments actually took place under the reign of the Ansar Dine.) At the same time, Zabou is casting a spell on the leader of the jihadists, compelling him to dance like one of her pet hens. Sissako cuts back and forth between the two scenes, as if to ask, which is lunacy?

The insanity and hypocrisy of the jihadists’ enforcement of strict sharia is a running theme of Timbuktu. Cigarettes are forbidden, but the jihadist leader sneaks off to smoke. The young men are forbidden to play soccer, but in one memorable scene they play a balletic game without a ball. The jihadists themselves are avid fans who argue over the talents of Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi. A young woman violates a ban on singing and is sentenced to forty lashes—and forty more for being in a room with men. Her screams turn to song in defiance of the punishment. Sissako shows us that the jihadists are not deeply schooled in the laws they enforce. In an eloquent debate between the local imam and one of the jihadi leaders, the imam asks where God and forgiveness are in all this, and the jihadist has no answer. In Sissako’s depiction they are willing to listen; their jihad is not driven by uncontrollable hatred.

Outside the village where most of the film takes place live Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their twelve-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and a younger orphaned boy, Issan (Mehdi A. G. Mohamed), who tends the family cows. They are Tuaregs, the nomadic people whose numbers were decimated in the twentieth century. Their neighbors have fled, but this family remains, and their domestic life and love are presented as idyllic; each of them is beautiful. Among the Tuaregs, men wear the veil not just for protection against the desert sands but also as a symbol of manhood. When one of the family’s favorite cows, GPS—Sissako wants us to see that even Tuaregs live in the global community—blunders into a fisherman’s net, the fisherman hurls his spear and kills the animal. As Kidane sets out to confront the fisherman, he carries a revolver; his wife begs him not to take it. In his flowing robes, with his veiled face, Kidane is a compelling figure, and the scene is one of the most visually graceful in the film. The two men struggle in the shallow water of the river. The camera pulls back, and the figures become indistinguishable. We hear a shot and both men fall into the water. A wide-angle lens takes in the whole landscape surrounding the river, and slowly we realize Kidane has survived. In his robes, now heavily soaked, he awkwardly struggles across the river. There is no Hollywood-style close-up of the violence; Sissako’s camera moves upward and away. We watch the scene like God looking down on human frailties.

There will follow Kidane’s trial under sharia; his acceptance of his fate suggests his faith is deeper than the jihadists’. A sequence of tragic accidents leaves Toya an orphan, running from the jihadists like the desperate gazelle in the first scene. That recurrence, representative of Timbuktu’s artistry, is like the last line of a poem that repeats and deepens the meaning of the first.