AP: ‘Timbuktu,’ an Oscar nominee, explores Islamic extremism

Associated Press

An Islamic extremist can’t summon the necessary fervor while making a video hailing the jihadi cause in a scene from “Timbuktu,” an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film that is based on the militant takeover of the ancient city in Mali in 2012.

“You’re not focused,” says the jihadi behind the camera, coaching the listless recruit. “Your speech is not convincing at all.”

The film is a languid, melancholic and occasionally humorous tale that features a cattle herder, played by Ibrahim Ahmed, who falls afoul of the new gun-wielding masters in Timbuktu, a U.N.-designated World Heritage site that was a center of Islamic learning centuries ago.

“Timbuktu” can also serve as an exploration of the harsh ideology of Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the slain gunmen who attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris. A slain assailant suspected in Copenhagen attacks that killed two people this weekend may have been inspired by Islamic militants, Danish authorities said.

More generally, the movie is an understated commentary on intolerance, resistance and violence, which is often implied and suggested on the screen.

“To speak and talk about violence or show it in a very spectacular way makes it more common, and therefore acceptable,” Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

“It’s all the more difficult to comprehend when committed by people who are just like us, who look like us,” said Sissako, noting that the January attacks in Paris were committed by people who may have spent time chatting in a cafe with friends, just like anyone.

The three gunmen, including two brothers, were born in France and were of foreign descent.

“It cannot be more timely, this story,” said Mahen Bonetti, founder of the New York African Film Festival. She said the “hot button” issue of religious extremism “is one of the roots of today’s problems. He is telling us it is not only a problem for Africa, or Mali, but it’s a global problem.”

Sissako, whose themes as a filmmaker include migration, identity, the notion of home and the loss of humanity, also points out “the contradictions of this rigid ideology,” Bonetti said.

The 53-year-old director, who spent part of his youth in Mali and settled in France in the 1990s, has said the “dramatic spark” for “Timbuktu” was a 2012 incident in which militants in Aguelhok in northern Mali stoned to death an unmarried couple who had two children. Some scenes were shot in Mauritania because the security situation in Timbuktu made it too risky to film there, Sissako said.

In “Timbuktu,” the jihadis are shown as brutal, hesitant and hypocritical. Despite an edict against smoking, one sneaks a cigarette. Militants entering a narrow lane in a vehicle are flummoxed by an eccentric townswoman who blocks their path.

The menace in “Timbuktu” competes with beauty — in the dunes, the river, the sunlight and the silence and song of a people struggling under oppression. In one elegant scene, youths glide around a dusty soccer field, passing an imaginary ball because the sport has been banned.

“I wanted to talk about how absurd it is to forbid some things,” Sissako said. “It was important to show that it was possible to resist, to express a form of resistance that was completely peaceful.”

In a telephone interview, Julien Gavelle, an anthropologist based in Mali, described the soccer scene as “a metaphorical way of seeing the occupation and resistance,” but said he would have preferred that the film bluntly show the imprisonment of women and other harsh, traumatizing effects of the jihadi takeover.

“It’s a beautiful movie, but it’s not realistic enough for my point of view,” said Gavelle, who described the current political and security situation in northern Mali as tenuous.

In 2012, al-Qaida-linked Islamists who occupied Timbuktu destroyed ancient manuscripts and reduced the mausoleums honoring the city’s saints to rubble. They ran the city and the rest of northeastern Mali for months before being chased out by French-led troops in early 2013.

The director, whose other films include “Bamako” and “Waiting for Happiness,” said the Oscar nomination gives a platform to African film.

“When there’s a movie from the African continent that is presented, it’s the entire continent that is represented,” Sissako said.