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Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Timbuktu"

2014, 97 minutes. Nominated for Oscar for best Foreign Language Film

February 25, 2015

Director Abderrahmane Sissako with cast. Cohen Media

For an American audience used to war movies with explosions, good guys and bad guys, and finite conclusions, the Oscar-nominated, Mauritanian film Timbuktu is a departure. The violence is never gratuitous, most of the jihadists seem like normal (albeit dangerously misguided) people, and, at the end, the fates of the eponymous city and several main characters are left hazy. The people who would most likely choose to see Timbuktu are already numbed by the constant stream of horrific news out of Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc., so this low-key approach is the perfect strategy. We know about the executions, suicide bombings, and coalition airstrikes. But what we don't realize is, perhaps, the main takeaway from the film: This type of militant extremism, more than anything else, is soul-crushingly boring for the occupied populations.

A New Take on Jihad

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a Mauritanian-Malian filmmaker, Timbuktu chronicles a brief period during the 2012 occupation of the ancient Malian city by the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine during the Malian Civil War. The jihadists single-mindedly go about instituting sharia law in Timbuktu, a city famed for its diversity and as a center of Muslim learning. Each day, seemingly, a keffiyeh-covered jihadist walks the empty streets and shouts into a megaphone in multiple languages all that is banned—soccer, music, cigarettes, adultery, sitting in front of your home, "any old thing"—and, mostly for women, all that is required—socks, gloves, head scarves.

It is an exhausting charade for all. A jihadist leader sneaks cigarettes behind sand dunes and flirts with a married woman, young militants passionately argue about soccer superstars Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi, and every night, the fighters creep through Timbuktu's alleys searching for the source of soft guitar music. The locals, meanwhile, mostly stay indoors (many of the scenes taking place in the city portray it as eerily quiet). Those who do venture outside are either gently subversive, like an older imam who attempts to teach the ignorant, young militants what "jihad" really means, and the group of teenaged boys who incredibly mime a soccer game without a ball; or are outright defiant, like the fishmonger woman who dares the jihadists to chop off her hands for refusing to wear gloves. (The jihadists decline and the woman eventually covers her hands.)

These episodes, which are equally hypnotic, with the silent, sun-drenched city as a backdrop, and humorous, as the jihadists barely attempt to hide their hypocrisy, are interrupted by disturbing scenes of extreme violence: A woman is given 80 lashes for singing (and then sings as she is getting whipped), a young couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death in broad daylight, and an argument about fishing nets and drinking water for cows ends in tragedy for two families. These moments are a stark reminder of why Ansar Dine is in charge.

Beyond Islamic Militancy

In this film, though, which is rightfully being hailed as a groundbreaking artistic statement against terrorism and extremism, the main conflict (the aforementioned argument that ends in tragedy), taken literally, is not even about Islamic militancy.

Kidane, a young cow-herder with a loving wife and daughter, lives quietly on the outskirts of the city sipping tea, playing guitar, and watching over his eight cows. This serenity is shattered when a fisherman, Amadou, kills Kidane's favorite cow, a pregnant sow named GPS, after she gets tangled in Amadou's nets in a nearby watering hole. Kidane, with a gun concealed under his clothes, confronts Amadou, and accidentally shoots and kills the fisherman as they scuffle in the water. Kidane is soon apprehended by the militants and is imprisoned and sentenced according to sharia law.

At first glance, this fight seems tangential to the film's message, but a closer look at the conflict between Kidane and Amadou offers a synopsis of life in Northern Mali. Sissako could be saying that the conditions that led to the shooting are the same as those that bred Islamic extremism and allowed it to take hold in the region.

The two men were actually fighting over much more than GPS. Perhaps adding to the tension are the clear differences between the two men. Amadou has the dark skin and the given name of an ethnic West African and wears shorts and polo shirts. Kidane is a Taureg who has lighter skin and wears traditional Berber clothes. Furthermore, the physical land that two men share is under attack as well. As the Sahara Desert expands, which has been occurring at an alarming rate, it swallows up watering holes, forcing fishermen, cow-herders, farmers, and thirsty families, of all types of ethnicities and traditions, to share valuable and dwindling resources.

This punishing environment, it can be argued, created conditions ripe for extremism. It is not hard to imagine that if Kidane and Amadou had taken a few different turns in their respective lives, they could have ended up as jihadists. Why struggle with cowherds and fishnets when you can just grab a Kalashnikov, interpret the Quran in a different way, and strut around as the ruler of one of the world's most iconic cities?

These facts are not lost on the jihadists, either. Most (maybe all) of the militants are outsiders, ignorant of the local traditions, and speaking Arabic, French, or English, and not the local dialects of Tamasheq and Bambara. This means that the terrorists chose Northern Mali and Timbuktu to wage their war and it is easy to see why. How can the local population be expected to fight back when they are fighting amongst themselves? Indeed, it took the outside intervention of the French military during Operation Serval to rid the city of Ansar Dine.

Looking Backward and Forward

No matter how hard the jihadists tried, glimpses of Timbuktu's culture managed to peek through. The locals still wore their brightly colored clothes (the woman maybe just wore more of them to conform to the new dress code), soft guitar music still could be heard at night, and the devout prayed peacefully in the city's mosques. It was as if many of the residents assumed that the militants would just be a passing phase and they would soon have their city back. It was nonviolent resistance in its own way.

There are myriad geopolitical questions that arise from these types of situations. (Is nonviolence enough when an entire culture is being threatened with whips and machine guns? What would have become of Timbuktu if the French hadn't intervened?) But Sissako doesn't attempt to answer these questions and he doesn't and shouldn't have to. He is an artist and this film is how he saw the Ansar Dine occupation of Timbuktu.

In the same way, the vast majority of Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Libyans, Somalis, and Nigerians shouldn't have to answer these questions either. Violence has invaded their parts of the world, but their lives should not be defined by it. Their stories existed before and will exist after this particular type of extremism (hopefully) dies out. It is difficult to make a movie based on this principle but Sissako has done it masterfully.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Was a foreign intervention the right answer to the problem of Ansar Dine in Mali? Can nonviolent resistance ever be a useful strategy against terrorism?

2. What obligations do artists have (if any) in times of war and conflict?

3. How does Sissako's portrayal of the militants differ from portrayals in other films and television shows? Does Sissako portray them fairly? Should he have been "tougher" on them?

4. This review made the case that the fight between Kidane and Amadou was a synopsis of the struggles of Malian society. Is there another interpretation of this?

5. In this review—and more generally in Western media—various words have been used to describe the kind of fighters who came to Timbukutu: "Islamic militants/extremists," "terrorists," "jihadists." Are these the words that we should be using to describe these groups? Are there better/more descriptive terms? Do words matter in this context?

6. Does this film change the way you think about other Islamic militant groups, like ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or individual Islamic militants? From the way it is portrayed in the film, is Ansar Dine different from these groups?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

Security Threats in Africa: A Critical Perspective
Claire Metelits, Davidson College
The U.S. is still seeing Africa from a Cold War perspective rooted in political realist thought, writes Africa security expert Metelits. But characterizing non-Western institutions as having a lack of governance and generalizing about political violence can lead to grave errors in assessing the threat environment.
(Carnegie Ethics Online, October 2014)

Foreign Fighters in Syria
Richard Barrett, The Soufan Group
How is ISIS structured? Why are young Muslims from many countries going to Syria to join it? What is the nature and extent of the threat and how can it be overcome? Counterintelligence expert Richard Barrett (formerly with MI5, MI6, and the UN) gives an informative, balanced, and perceptive report.
(Public Affairs, September 2014)

A Clear and Present Danger: Why We Need the UN Security Council to Help Defeat ISIL
David C. Speedie and Zach Dorfman, Carnegie Council
The relentless advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses an existential threat to countries of the region and a grave challenge to the world at large. The curbing and crushing of ISIL requires extraordinary measures, a "coalition of the concerned," led by the United States and working through and in cooperation with the UN Security Council.
(Carnegie Council Article, August 2014)

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East
Shadi Hamid, Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy, Brookings Institution
What if a group decides democratically that they don't want to be liberal—that they want an "illiberal democracy"? Shadi Hamid argues that repression originally compelled Islamists to moderate their politics. But ironically, democratic openings pushed them back to their original fundamentalism, leaving no space for liberal norms such as women's rights.
(Public Affairs, April 2014)

The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism
Marwan Muasher, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Jordanian diplomat and scholar Marwan Muasher surveys the situation across the Arab world. He sees reasons for optimism in the long run, particularly in Tunisia, and makes a passionate call for pluralism, which he says is essential for democracy and prosperity.
(Public Affairs, January 2014)

The Fate of Cultural Property in Wartime: Why it Matters and What Should Be Done
Jennifer Otterson Mollick
Cultural property protection in conflict is often neglected as people argue that the lives of individuals in warzones are far more important than old buildings, pots, and books. However, it is not a question of prioritizing. We must not dismiss cultural property protection in conflicts as secondary to humanitarian tragedy, but as part of the effort to save humanity.
(Carnegie Ethics Online, September 2013)

Of Africa
Wole Soyinka, Playwright and Poet
In this masterful talk, Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka focuses on Nigeria and Mali. Mali must be taken back, he declares. "To permit an enclave of extreme, violent fundamentalism [in Mali] is letting the door wide open to fundamentalist violence, not merely in Nigeria, but throughout West Africa."
(Public Affairs, November 2012)

Works Cited

"A Fury Arrives. Hypocrisy, Too.", The New York Times, A. O. Scott, January 27, 2015

"Abderrahmane Sissako", Wikipedia, Last modified on May 13, 2015

"Ansar Dine", Wikipedia, Last modified on July 24, 2015

"Desertification - expansion of the Sahara Desert", BBC Bitesize, October 18, 2007

"Review: Timbuktu a compelling exploration of extremism's absurdities" Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey, January 29, 2015

"Terrorism Without Terror", Slate, Joshua Keating, February 12, 2015

"Timbuktu film at Cannes mixes tragedy, charm and humour", BBC World Service, Vincent Dowd, May 20, 2014

"Timbuktu is one of the most important movies ever made about terrorism", Business Insider, Armin Rosen, February 10, 2015

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