by Emma Burles
We are following a beautiful young deer through the desert in slow motion, its limbs galloping through the sand dunes, kicking up gentle clouds of dust as its runs free through the Sahara. Abruptly we are jerked out of this reverie by the appearance of a truck full of men with shotguns. They are in pursuit of the deer, and it becomes clear that the deer isn’t, in fact, running free, it’s fleeing with terror. The next shot is a pan across a collection of beautiful, traditional African masks and other artifacts lined up on a hill, their exquisite hand-carved features being slowly blown to bits during a firing practice. The film is set in the city of Timbkutu, in politically unstable Mali, West Africa, where religious fundamentalists have taken over. The symbology from these opening shots is clear – these men have invaded this space to destroy all that is unique, beautiful and free of the inhabitant’s culture.
Throughout the film increasingly harsh and absurd laws are passed by the jihadists, banning everything from music to soccer, whilst the inhabitants have two options: to suffer in silence or defy and be punished. Residents watch their freedoms and the simple pleasures in life stripped away bit by bit. The actions of the fundamentalists are in stark contrast to the extreme piety and modesty they impose, as they smoke, perform beatings, abduct young women and force them into marriage without their parents consent, whip, and stone offenders to death.
Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his family however are spared much of this, as they live their serene and nomadic existence in a tent on the sand dunes on the outskirts of the city. Although their neighbours have moved on due to the jihadist rule; the peaceful Kidane, his strong wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their determined daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) remain, as well as the shepherd boy in their employ, Issan (Medhi A. G. Mohamed). They defy the rules of the fundamentalists who occasionally venture to their abode, spending the evenings singing and playing guitar, with Satima spending most of the day unveiled (even washing her hair in front of a jihadist on one of their visits).
One day however, an unfortunate sequence of events causes Kidane to become caught up in the harsh punishments of Shia law, and Kidane’s fate and that of his family’s is taken out of his hands.
There are arrestingly moving moments scattered throughout: a gathering of young musicians singing gently of an evening, a woman’s desperate and defiant singing as she is whipped for said singing; a beautiful depiction of a football match without a ball; Kidane’s endearing love for his wife and daughter, and his farewell remark to them as he leaves, not knowing whether he will return, “I do not say what you already know”.
Director Aderrahmane Sissako states his inspiration for the film came after he read of a case in Northern Mali, during which a young couple in love and with children were stoned to death for being unmarried. Largely ignored by the media, Sissako felt a need to tell their story, and present the injustice of the situation.
The film is a melancholic and often tragic collection of stories, woven into a tapestry rich in traditional heritage and culture, slowly torn apart by outsiders, foolish men with self-imposed jihads, the logic of which even they don’t understand, and fail to defend theoretically when subjected to the gently pleading and exasperated admonishment of the local Imam.
Sissako’s opposition to the jihadist rule is evident yet he also makes clear that this film isn’t intended to depict the idea of absolute good and evil, and he seeks to show a more fragile, human side to the jihadists; in an interview at Cannes stating, “humanizing the executioner is a way of showing that I still have faith in mankind, in spite of it all”.