Timbuktu (2014): Humanist Message Film about Atrocities in Mali

Cannes Film Festival 2014 (In Competition)–Set during the jihadist takeover of Mali in 2012, Timbuktu is message film of the highest humanist order, a strong condemnation of prejudice, intolerance, and annihilation of traditional culture.

Since the violence went largely unknown in terms of media coverage, “Timbuktu” can also be seen as condemnation of the selectivity and biases of the global new media.

Western viewers, particularly Americans, may not be familiar with the details of the atrocities conducted by Islamic fundamentalists, which led to the tragic destruction of a whole culture, its sites and its symbols. For these audiences, and others unaware of the degree of atrocities, Abderrahmane Sissako’s feature will be a shocking chronicle.

timbuktu_1Festival-goers are familiar with the director’s previous works, “Bamako” and “Waiting for Happiness,” and an entrepreneurial distributor may want to take a risk with this powerful film.

The tale begins with the jihadists’ destruction of sacred sites and statuettes. But always a humanist filmmaker, the focus is on the heavy price paid by ordinary and peaceful individuals.

With determined clarity, Sissako depicts the region’s multi-cultural composition, the co-existence of various ethnic groups with the nomadic Tuareg people. Things change with the arrival of the jihadists, who impose strict censorship (to say the least), enforcing bans on music, sports, public gatherings, and women’s clothes.

At first, the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) tries to argue with the cruel invaders, but to no avail, as the latter are rigid in their own ideological commitment. Most of the jihadist, who are quite young, refuse even to listen, especially when the issues concern women’s rights.

In a powerful scene, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) drives to the Tuareg family to convince Satima (Toulou Kiki), who’s married to Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), to cover her head. For her part, Satima feels that they should move closer to other people, but Kidane is a proud and stubborn cattle herder, who believes in raising their teenager child Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and the orphan Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed) according to their own traditional beliefs.

In a climactic confrontation, Issan loses control and a cow gets caught in the nets of fisherman Amadou, who spears it. An accidental shooting by Kidane kills the fisherman, and from that point on, the conflict escalates. A series of punishments is executed on of all those who have deviated from the sharia law. Indeed, soldiers arrest some individuals for making music, subjecting the female singer Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara) to physical abuse.

The jihadists, who perceive themselves as guardians of faith and order, don’t tolerate any expression of freedom or individuality.

In the press notes, Sissako relates watching a video, in which an unmarried couple was stoned to death, which inspired him to include a similar scene, perhaps make the entire movie. (See below)

The sharp imagery conveys the film’s milieu, showing a lively region that has become silent, lively streets that have become empty, a dreary and austere world in which there is no music, no tea, no colors, and worst of all a place where women have become shadows.


On July 29, 2012 in Aguelhok, a small city in northern Mali–more than half of which was being occupied by men who were mostly outsiders–an unspeakable crime took place to which the media largely turned a blind eye. A thirtysomething couple, blessed with two children, were stoned to death.

Their crime: They were not married.  The video of their killing, which was posted on line by the perpetrators, is horrid.  The woman dies struck by the first stone, while the man lets out a hollow rasp of a cry.  Then silence. Soon after, they were dug up only to be buried faurther away.

Director says: “Aguelhok is not Damascus, nor Tehran. So nothing is said about this. What I write is unbearable, I know this. I am in no way trying to use shock value to promote the film. I can’t say I didn’t know and, now that I do, I must testify in the hopes that no child will ever again have to learn their parents died because they loved each other.”


Running time: 96 Minutes.

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako.

Screenplay, Sissako, Kessen Tall.

Camera, Sofiane El Fani.

Editor, Nadia Ben Rachid.

Music, Amine Bouhafa.

Production designer, Sebastien Birchler.