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Timbuktu: An Old African Saying

By Akin Adesokan

The news comes through to enthusiasts of African cinema eagerly following events at the 2015 Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in real time: according to the magazine Jeune Afrique, the organisers of the famous festival have decided to withdraw Timbuktu, the much praised new film by director Abderrahmane Sissako, from being screened during the festival, citing security concerns. It is the kind of news that sparks all sorts of speculation. Is this another instance of the weak-kneed abjection of African cultural brokers, eager to beat the hell out of an imaginary danger? Is professional envy at work, Timbuktu having won all of seven prizes at the César Awards in France the week before? When contacted, the director responds, “It does not surprise me because FESPACO management contacted me recently to discuss the possibility [of not screening the film]. Obviously I’m not supportive of this decision, which was made without taking my feelings into consideration.”

Eventually, Timbuktu was screened. The Burkinabe ambassador to Belgium, who had contacted his home government about the terrorist threats received when the film was scheduled for screening, was overruled by Acting President Michel Kafando, who vowed to attend the screening. Memories of Charlie Hebdo might still be fresh in Paris, but this was Burkina Faso, for heavens’ sake.

In the end, it was much ado about very little. As an eye-witness wrote to me in an email, “Timbuktu was screened and we waited in line for nearly two hours but were unable to get in the theatre, not because security was tight, but because of poor organisation. [The film] did not win in the feature film category, and remarks were not altogether favourable for political reasons, I think.”

Those familiar with African cinema know that there is a predictability to Sissako making this film. They also know of a paradox in the overall politics of its making. Partly based on the real-life story of the public stoning of an unmarried couple in Aguelhok in 2012, Timbuktu uncompromisingly dwells on the absurdity of theocratic rule in a world of ever-present heterogeneity. The Islamists’ brief occupation of Timbuktu provides the film’s immediate thematic focus, but the narrative resonates on different levels. The dramatic conflict between the cattle owner Kidane and the fisherman, for instance, recalls the recurrent antagonism of herdsmen and farmers in north-eastern Nigeria. By playing up the universal appeal of football and music in African cities, the film shows a great sense of realism that nonetheless deepens the director’s ethical gauging of the quirks of history.

Born straddling the physical divide across Mali and Mauritania, Sissako (who’s shortened Abderrahmane to Dramane, his cameo name) has built his justly earned reputation by filming the African continent in different dimensions, his zoom lens primarily focused on the minutiae of both sides of his Mali/Mauritanian parentage, and farther afield under the signs of pan African solidarity. He is a poet of nomadism, of mobility, but also a witness to the lives of people who have nowhere to go. His first notable short film, Sabriya, attempts to capture the longings among the men in a small border town in Mauritania, while La Vie Sur Terre, the work that really announced his compelling talents to the world, moves from a Parisian supermarket to Sokolo, a small village in rural Mali where farmers are held hostage by a scourge of rice pests, a ramshackle radio shed and a photographer’s open-air studio their only feasible outlets for human aspiration. In the haunting Bamako, Sissako arranges his childhood compound as the stage from which to look at the world, playing with both Brechtian-style objective critique of neoliberalism’s undertaker logic and “deadly” cinematic genres. But it is in Heremakhonon (Waiting for Happiness) that he trains his camera’s eyes extensively on the parallax view of Africa’s northern desert.

Standing as the northern border of Mali, the Sahara desert figures in African cinema in complex ways, visually an immensity of sand but frequently peopled by figures in motion, evidence of the filmmakers’ rhetorical choice not to fall for the narrative of simple ethnography. Whether it’s a child walking through the sand to unearth a gigantic egg as in Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen (1987), or a band of aspirants trudging to an uncertain destination as in Mostefa Djedjam’s Frontières (2002), or a turbaned man playfully exploring electrical mysteries with a child (Heremakhonon), the desert is a place where people make lives. It means something different to the people who live with it, regardless of what it looks like to outsiders. This complexity also explains why the Sahara fascinates artists who don’t live with it, as Nigerian poet Tade Ipadeola shows in his splendid The Sahara Testaments (2012). The same is true of Timbuktu, the popular euphemism for the end of the world, unreachably nestled in the mists of time. By giving his latest film this title, and making it the place of this drama of courage and resilience, Sissako decidedly complicates those standard narratives about the continent. Africans live there, and in great cultural diversity: Songhai, Fulani, Tuareg, Arab.

Yet eminence engenders enmity. Much loved and praised by critics the world over, Sissako is viewed in some circles of African cinema as someone who has fully bought into the “La Francophonie”: the official French agenda of creating a broad sphere of influence in which French culture holds sway. The most inexorable strand of this agenda is the notion of “Françafrique”, Africa as France’s playground, or battleground. West Africa especially constitutes a continually engaging theatre of this political aspiration, and France’s support of the Biafran secessionists during the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970) has everything to do with its ambitions to be the European power of note in the region. “Françafrique” is a complicated phenomenon, and it has evolved in two distinct but complementary ways, cinema being one powerful instrument of that evolution.

In the first place, to underline the structural relationship between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in the development of filmmaking on the continent, as the British scholar Roy Armes has often done, is to stay true to the history of collaborations among filmmakers who came into their own on the cusp of decolonisation. Beginning in the 1980s, Armes has written with agreeable common sense about this relationship which is often downplayed by most critics, but without which the history of African cinema is impossible. Without ignoring the specific economic and political realities of the countries involved, much less the cultural and religious factors at play in “Arab North” and “Black Africa”, a careful look at the history of filmmaking on the continent effectively debunks the myth of “Darkest Africa”. “Sub-Saharan Africa”, or “Africa proper”, is an old creation of European racism consolidated with the formal partition of the continent in the 19th century.

This map-making is so central to contemporary ideas about the continent as to be interchangeable with geography, and this “Africa proper” exists so long as the “Arab North” and “European South” are deliberately excised. But the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity in the 1960s, like the establishment of the African Union in the 2000s, points to a different reality: the political cooperation with the North African countries in spite of the latters’ orientation toward the Arab League, and the principled opposition to apartheid in spite of the collaboration of leaders like Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Mobutu Sese Seko. The Maghreb has always exhibited a strong political solidarity toward the rest of the continent. The Bissauan revolutionary and political thinker Amílcar Cabral had a base in Morocco, the country which hosted the progressive Casablanca conference of the OAU in 1961; Frantz Fanon’s work in Algeria was decisive in the development of his ideas about anti-colonial struggle as explored in The Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism; and there is much evidence of Maghrebian support for the liberation movements in southern and south-western Africa.

Nor does the gesture run one way only. The continuing struggle of the Polisario west of Morocco continues to receive the political support of many African governments, and the early recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in countries like Nigeria and Ghana happened within the context of anti-imperial struggle informed by the ideals of Tricontinentalism, but also on the basis of African unity. This is not to underestimate the force of Middle Eastern Arab nationalism for the North African countries, especially after the Israeli–Arab wars of 1967 and 1973, nor to overlook the cultural expectations which might orient the Moroccan of today less toward the Nigerian than the Syrian. An awareness of these socio-political realities has to be combined with the larger history of inconclusive decolonisation which partly motivates the movement against globalisation, and with which progressive pan Africanism remains in alliance.

The other aspect of the role France has played in the relationship between the “Maghreb” and “the Sudan” comes from the history of French colonialism on the continent. Armes puts this succinctly when he views France’s sphere of influence in terms of the “two contiguous but variously colonized geographical areas… the North African countries forming the Maghreb… and the states formed south of the Sahara from the two giant colonies of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa”. Given another kind of contiguity, the one centred on France’s role in the birth of cinema and in 19th-century European imperialism, it is clear that one can hardly speak of African filmmaking without an awareness of “La Francophonie”, the cultural-linguistic sphere of French influence outside Europe. It was Férid Boughedir, the Tunisian filmmaker, who, with his usual gift for memorable declarations, characterised the ambiguous patronage inbuilt in this relationship: “African cinema exists because of France, and African cinema doesn’t exist because of France.”

But that was when the need was pressing to be polemical, when Françafrique Calibans felt at liberty to curse wily Prospero who had other reasons for imparting the language. Boughedir, a true cineaste according to Armes, does indeed have interesting things to say about the cinematic culture that developed in spite or because of this constricting background. In a famous 1998 interview with the critic Olivier Barlet, he discusses this North-South relationship in great detail.

While it is common to read of the influence of French, Italian, and German directors on African filmmakers, very little is acknowledged of the impact of African directors on others. The director of the documentaries Camera d’Afrique and Camera d’Arabe, among other films, tells Barlet, “There were many similarities between the first sub-Saharan and North African films. The thing that helped me see the connection was the cinematographic shock several Black African films, and notably Black Girl, provoked, which, for me, opened new perspectives on filmmaking, giving me a new perspective and more freedom.” Pressed further, he enthuses about Ousmane Sembene’s early film, “An incredibly powerfully moving, beautiful, dignified, humane, intelligent, and honourable film! At the same time, it was shot in a new way: the space, the rhythm, the density, was new. I sensed that I was before another culture that taught me a lot, freed me, relieved me: we too could do something different, could invent another cinema.”

The discussion soon shifts gears into the realm of institutional support for filmmakers. The context for the encounters that have Boughedir in raptures was the formation of the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (JCC) in 1966 and of FESPACO in Ouagadougou in 1969. These institutional efforts were owed largely to the French provenance of the development of cinema on the continent, and they were useful for the work that the first generation of African filmmakers produced. Boughedir notes the interest of the Tunisian public in films coming from the south. The country boasted the highest number of film clubs on the entire continent, “and Tunisians were very interested in films from Black Africa. Audiences continue to flock to the movie theatres during the Carthage Festival, proving that they support the event, rather than going to see the films outside the festival”.

Then something else got in the way of aesthetic pleasure. The rupture that came, argues Boughedir, “was more related to the rise of Middle Eastern Arab nationalism than the Arab public’s assimilation of the Egyptian star system, as some people claim… At Carthage, many of the Middle Eastern countries sent unsubtitled films thinking, we’re all Arab countries, there’s no reason to use French sub-titles, we’re not colonized anymore! The African delegations felt excluded by this. In the Seventies, the opening and closing ceremonies were also conducted in Arabic alone as a result of an exaggerated nationalist sentiment, partly exacerbated by a series of defeats from 1967 up until the Gulf War, which were perceived as signaling the collapse, or a total fragmentation of the Arab nation…”

“Black Africans” were quick to respond in kind, though with less institutional gravitas. In 1974, the year that Mauritanian director Med Hondo won the Tanit d’Or at Carthage with Les Bicots Nègres vos Voisins, delegates from Mali and (then) Upper Volta questioned the director’s credentials, disparaging him as not being black enough! From then on, the politics of difference became so entrenched in the two film festivals that each became synonymous with the culture of its setting: JCC in Tunisia as an “Arab festival” and FESPACO in Burkina Faso as a “Black African festival”.

This is the broad institutional context of Timbuktu, the predictability and paradox of its coming in the wake of the jihadist onslaught in northern Mali in 2012. The connection between what Boughedir called “exaggerated [Arab] nationalist sentiment” and political Islam may be muted with respect to continental Africa, with its vast but diverse Muslim populations in every given country. History however shows that Islam came into the continent with tactical stealth, and the jihadist impulse periodically returns. The “peaceful penetration” model discussed by Cheikh Anta Diop in Precolonial Black Africa was necessary because the earliest attempts to wage a jihad were vehemently resisted. It took first the ascetic exactions of the marabout, then the collaboration of converted “black kings” to present a more attractive face of the faith. But the flows and ebbs in the history of the religion would periodically throw up an Uthman dan Fodio (19th century), a Berabiche Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali, or an Ansar Dine with strong links to what the Pentagon intelligentsia term “AQIM”.

In Ceddo (1977), Ousmane Sembene’s composite drama of the resistance to Islamic conversion in western Africa, the ceddo (or tieddo) have the unlikely support of Princess Dior whom they have held hostage, and the story ends on an upbeat note: the wilful daughter of the quiescent king murders the mullah. The facts weren’t that pretty. Writing of the decisive moment in the narrative of forced conversion, Diop states, “The Tuculors… fought while singing hymns that had a profound effect on the soldiers and their enemies… the Tuculors were fanaticized, the Cayorians terrified. The secular pseudo-nationalism of the latter, their mundane tieddo spirit, very quickly fell before the unshakeable faith of the Tuculors who, of course, were convinced that they would go directly to Paradise.”

We get Sembene’s point all the same. The film is a work of fiction, handiwork of an idealistic artist unwilling to glorify Islam or exculpate the black kings it had reduced to weaklings. Implausibly, the incurable humanist-humorist Sembene tried to interest the Ayatollah Khomeini in the film and was rebuffed, himself having rebuffed the Shah’s earlier attempt to court the film. Ceddo was not seen in Senegal until President Léopold Senghor left power in 1981. The Catholic president couldn’t afford to anger the Islamic establishment which always had his back.

Sissako’s terms are different. Whatever one may think of his place as a favourite of European culture-funders, there is but little to debate in the auspiciousness of a multiplicity of frontal counter-attacks on an insurgent movement hell-bent on atavistic theocracy. Any attempt at discrediting the Islamist aggressors would receive the political blessing of not just the Washington insiders, but also of François Hollande and the European Union. Champions of African Renaissance, from Thabo Mbeki-inspired governmental efforts in Pretoria to the Wole Soyinka-directed Centre for Black and International Understanding in Osogbo, are similarly invested in the fate of the priceless manuscripts in Timbuktu and more, and will spare no efforts. The interests of the “System” (radical cinema’s dismissive tag for imperialism) and of “Abibiman” (the world of black peoples) do not always coincide so brilliantly, and who knows whether beauty will save the world.

It would be both myopic and disingenuous to lock the film up with this instrumentalist key, however. In the last resort, Timbuktu bears all the features of the director’s work. Poetic but grounded, playful, fully aware of cinema’s aesthetic genealogies, but also invested in narrative pleasures, Sissako’s cinema is an unforgettable testimony to the African continent’s continuing encounter with itself. It is full of surprises, it is often confounding, it is far from uniform or uniformly convincing, but it is history always in the making. Once upon a time it was fashionable to think of a continent without heritage. Then, one heritage emerged, and in short order the heritage tripled. Then it became one again. It flows and ebbs. The changing narratives were either a matter of having ideological axes to grind or seeing a mask dancing, but both amounted to the same thing. The patient eye sees the nose. Speed, not exactitude, is what counts when battles are joined. Lucretius says that no condition is permanent. Ovid says that change is immanent. Nothing is new under the sun. Everything has not been thought.

In late 1976, just before plans for the second Festival of African Arts and Culture, FESTAC 77, were concluded, news came that Senegal, the country which hosted the first festival in Dakar in 1966, had decided to pull out. President Senghor, grand patron of the Negro Arts festival, felt that to shift FESTAC’s emphasis from the cultural outlook of the black world to the governmental notion of the OAU was to destroy the legacy which had taken a while to build. The point, though, is that between 1966 and 1977, there was 1969, the year of the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, when the city played host to governments and artists, those at home and those on the run and those in-between, and Agostinho Neto and Amos Tutuola and Miriam Makeba all had a place at the feast.

The Nigerians were at sea: failure of FESTAC would not only mean a waste of time and money, but would do great damage to continental cultural confidence and deal a serious diplomatic blow to the country’s effort to simultaneously support the liberation movements in southern Africa and the African components of the Arab League, still smarting from the injuries of the détente with Israel. What to do?

Having already parted ways with FESTAC due to political differences, Soyinka who, as fate had it, had been missing in the Algiers action, came to the rescue. He was friendly with Senghor; the “tigritude” tiff was behind both parties. As a matter of fact, he and Senghor had co-organised a colloquium in Dakar earlier that year (1976) which aimed, as Biodun Jeyifo, one of the participants, described it, “to deliberate on the way forward for Africa through the media of the arts, the humanities, the social sciences as well as the natural sciences”. (Sembene notably stayed away from this colloquium. Hard at work on Ceddo would be his excuse, but he and Senghor had never been buddies, and this might also explain his later coldness toward Soyinka, who had reportedly been in favour of Senghor’s stand on the film.)

Using the diplomatic skills that he had perfected in his relatively short career, Soyinka, a superb organiser according to C.L.R. James, successfully mediated in the quarrel between Nigeria and Senegal, and brought Senghor back to the party. His view of things seems instructive, and is very much in line with what makes Timbuktu a work with which to argue. As he argued in an interview with me in November 2013, those who think of the African continent as the world of black peoples and those who think of it as the world of all peoples are equally correct. For, in fact, the continent is both, and more. And if a conflict arises, as sometimes it must, another saying is instructive: All values are negotiable. A lesson that George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, agents of complementary fundamentalisms, failed to get or chose to ignore.

Beauty Will Save The World: An Encounter with Sissako

Subsequent to the release of Timbuktu, discussions on a Mande Studies listserv focused on the “La Francophonie” dynamics, which in relation to the film were framed in terms of cultural gaming on the director’s part. There were two particularly trenchant positions: first, that the film “falsifies” the facts of the jihadist takeover of Timbuktu, and second, that Abderrahmane Sissako’s status as cultural advisor to the Mauritanian government complicated the work’s artistic integrity.

The first position seems easier to address in so far as Sissako, like Ousmane Sembene, has created a work of art rather than represented historical facts in a strict sense. Both in his work and in his personal opinions, Sissako reflects a deep investment in the artistic process. The film Timbuktu is a work with which to argue.
The second position rests on the thorny issue of the Mauritanian government’s attitude toward the anti-slavery movement within the country, and how the film’s critique of Islamic fundamentalism allows the government (which provided partial funding) to whitewash its own repressive record against the anti-slavery movement while covering up massive corruption. It appears that in Mauritania the government uses the anti-terrorist mallet to clobber those engaged in the anti-slavery struggle. The sum of the two positions, however, is that Sissako uses his position as a powerful cultural figure to put a pink ribbon on the collusion between current Euro-American wars on terror and local repression in Mali and Mauritania. Sissako disclosed publicly that political realities necessitated that he carry out his filming in Mauritania, but that some scenes were clandestinely shot in Timbuktu. He told me, also, that he hadn’t received the funding that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs had earmarked for its “Francophonie project”. Indeed, most people in French cultural circles were unaware of the filming of Timbuktu until it was almost completed, and the basis for the offer of official French funding was largely to get in on the end credits.

A brief but awkward dialogue with Senegalese writer-director Jo Ramaka following the screening of Bamako, during a retrospective of Sissako’s cinema in Bloomington (US) in April 2015, touched on some of these issues. Ramaka had been critical of Bamako for so spectacularly taking the World Bank to task while giving relatively little attention to the perennial issue of the incompetence of African rulers whose corrupt practices deepen social inequality. “George Bush” [who is mentioned by name in Bamako] is gone,” says Ramaka, “but poverty remains in Bamako.”

Sissako, in response, pointed to the connection that one witness at the World Bank’s trial makes between corruption local and global, and the alienation in which the majority of African youth and poor people are caught. And who can say that the hundreds of economic refugees shown in the film trudging through the desert, eyes set on Europe, don’t end up in Algeria or Libya, finding jobs as “Islamic militants”?

During a remarkable scene in Timbuktu, a jihadi leader tries to get a recruit, otherwise interested in soccer and rap music, to tape a “message” of conversion to the world. “What are you fighting?” the fierce indoctrinator asks the timorous youth.

During a remarkable scene in Timbuktu, a jihadi leader tries to get a recruit, otherwise interested in soccer and rap music, to tape a “message” of conversion to the world. “What are you fighting?” the fierce indoctrinator asks the timorous youth.
“The West!”

“No,” the leader retorts, “Injustice.”

The taping session ends in woeful failure.

Earlier in the film, as several Islamic fighters invade a mosque, the imam, one of the story’s many voices of reason, engages them in patient, clever questioning. The battle of wits ends on another note affirming humanistic values. “He who dedicates himself to religion,” says the imam, “uses his head, not his weapon.” Unlike in Ceddo, the imam isn’t a person to be murdered in an act of resistance.

Timbuktu opens with the breathtaking image of a gazelle dashing through the desert, trying to escape gunshots. The same image returns at the end, but is elided with the breathless run of Toya, protagonist Kidane’s beautiful daughter, a symbol of an uncertain future.

“The gazelle for me symbolises beauty and grace,” Sissako told the Bloomington audience. Then, he added, “Beauty will save the world,” incorrectly attributing the statement to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

No matter. No one knows it all. Everything has not been thought.

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arabic edition of the Chimurenga Chronic (July 2015).
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