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Timbuktu at Chicago Film Festival – Black Perspective

Famed North African Director Abderrahmane Sissako takes an up close and personal look at the Jihadist occupation of his homeland

Dwight Casimere | 10/15/2014, 10:45 p.m.
Humanist and director Abderrahman Sissako (Mamako, Waiting for Happiness) presided over the U.S. Premiere of his French-Mauritanian produced dramatic film ...

Humanist and director Abderrahman Sissako (Mamako, Waiting for Happiness) presided over the U.S. Premiere of his French-Mauritanian produced dramatic film "Timbuktu". The film is being screened as part of the Chicago International Film Festival in its Black Perspectives category, October 15 and 16. It is entered in the festival's Main Competition. In a word, Timbuktu is a masterpiece.

The very word Timbuktu conjures exotic images of North African fantasy and legend which has been reinforced in films, novels, and even Broadway musicals. In Sissako's artfully crafted drama, the tragedy beneath its glittering history is revealed with stunning clarity. The peace and cultural and religious harmony of this idyllic North African oasis is suddenly shattered by the arrival of jihadist militia. "They literally hijacked the place," Sissako declared in a New York Film Festival appearance.

The film was inspired by the public stoning of a young, unmarried couple in the town of Aguelhok, near Timbuktu. It centers on the brief occupation of Timbuktu by jihadist Islamic fundamentalists. Instead of approaching the subject with sweeping epic scenes involving massive armies and political leaders, the film takes an almost microscopic look at the impact of the takeover and its effect on the lives of the region's most ordinary people; the nomadic herdsmen who live in tents on the outskirts of town, a lone fisherman whose preoccupation is the protection of his fishing nets, the women fishmongers and shopkeepers who become targets of the fundamentalist's scorn against uppity women.

Sissako, with his collaborator, cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who lit up the screen with last year's Palm d'Or Cannes Film Festival Winner and Official Selection at the 2013 New York Film Festival, "Blue Is The Warmest Color," contrasts the bright yellow light and swirling sands of the southeast Mauritanian villages of Oualata and Nema, where the film was shot, with the draconian tactics of the jihadists, who are threatening to drive the thriving local culture back into the Middle Ages. "Timbuktu is a symbol," Sissako said at a post-screening news conference at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. "This was truly the world's first multi-cultural society. It is the home of the world's first university and a place, until recently, where all of the worlds religions lived together in peace and harmony. Timbuktu is not only a multi-cultural, but a multi-lingual society, and you hear that throughout the film." Scenes are filmed in Arabic, French, English and the local Tamashek languages. There's one tragically comic scene in which one of the jihad soldiers is frantically radioing the details of a tragic incident to his base commader in fractured Arabic. Finally, the frustrated base commander yells at him "Just speak in English man, I can't understand a word you're saying!"

The scene highlights the further absurdity of the occupation. None of the jihadists speaks the local lingo, so all communications have to be translated from Arabic to French and then into English for anyone to be understood. It's insult added to injury.