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Timbuktu and a future no one wants to see

What is jihad? What do fundamentalists want? How will moderate Islamists react? These are questions that should be discussed. We may not have easy answers, but if we don’t start a dialogue, we may miss an opportunity to curtail horror.

The film Timbuktu from African director Abderrahmane Sassako about his native country serves as a needed point of departure for discussion — in government, in schools, in boardrooms, and in families.

Jihadism and terrorism are the 21st century’s “-isms,” following the horrors of fascism and communism. In hindsight, we wonder if we could have prevented the horrors of the 20th century. The devastating results have taught us that people do not want war; they want to live and work in peace. Should we not learn from history’s mistakes and prevent future genocides?

In the name of jihad, innocent victims are beheaded, kidnapped, raped, tortured, terrorized, left without families, and without homes. Extremist Muslims wage war against Christians and Jews, and against other Muslims (Sunnis vs. Shiites). Havoc is occurring in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, West Bank, Mali, Sudan, etc. It may soon take hold of our cities where jihadists threaten to set up terrorist cells.

Powerful and courageous, Timbuktu mesmerizes us with its blend of colors and music amidst a gentle background of sand dunes. Yet, juxtaposed to the serene beauty of Mali’s nature is the ferocious narrative of men turned into animals, forcing their machine guns on the quiet people of Timbuktu. We bear witness to the atrocious acts of barbarism.

Based on a true story when jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012, Sassako gives us a mosaic of characters who represent multi-cultural Africa. The camera takes us directly into their tragedies using a cause and effect structure:

  • We see a fisherwoman who refuses to wear a veil and gloves, for how would she be able to see or pick up the fish she must sell? Her rebellion, despite her mother’s pleas and the jihadist threats, is frightening.
  • Timbuktu
    Timbuktu, un film de Abderrahmane Sassako
  • Several friends play the guitar and sing together in the quiet of their home. The result? They are arrested and stoned to death.
  • A boy has a soccer ball, and accidentally the ball rolls down steps and through sand dunes to fall in front of several jihadists. The punishment? 40 lashes.
  • A caring man defends his young shepherd when their cow is killed. The outcome? A fight and the destruction of a family.
  • The leader of the community, the imam, tells several jihadists to leave the mosque with their guns and boots. People are praying. He warns them that Allah does not want destruction or terror. We fear the imam’s end.

These characters are not abstract; they are real victims. We follow their story, care for them, empathize with their pride, and suffer with their courage.

The contrast between good and evil, beauty and terror, are presented in alternating scenes and play havoc with our emotions. Sometimes we want to close our eyes as the evil becomes unbearable; we fear what horror will follow.

Sassako is a master storyteller and painter of landscape. His color palette holds our eyes as our hearts cringe at the story. Beautiful moments linger amidst savage reality. We see ballet in the scene when a dozen young men play soccer without a soccer ball. How graceful is their athletic movements and how deep their pleasure. We are mesmerized, and at the same time, we are panicked to think what the next scene will bring. The film’s power comes from its majestic beauty – a beauty that we fear cannot exist with the evil we are watching.

Sassako parallels the opening scene with the final scene. The film begins showing an elegant deer running through the soft dunes. It ends with the same scene, but the animal is replaced by the twelve-year-old heroine who runs desperately through the same dunes as she tries to escape her tragic reality. Sassako’s circle is a vicious cycle with no end to crimes against humanity.

Timbuktu is a difficult film to watch because it depicts a possible future that no one wants to see: genocide. All the more reason to see this film now.

Images courtesy of Les Films du WORSO

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