Notes on the Western in Sissako's Timbuktu (2015)

Curator's Note

Timbuktu (2015) is a widely critically acclaimed film and Academy awards nominee for best foreign film directed by Abderahmane Sissako. Timbuktu documents the town’s real-life occupation by Islamic extremists which disintegrates into a fascist theocracy allegedly in the name of God. Timbuktu (2014) flows from Death in Timbuktu, a short western inserted into Bamako (2006), a cinematic essay on the mythological power and intertextuality of the western, particularly the western-spaghetti defined by the Trinita movie series, as a source of cinematic influence and experimentation. These western tropes were referenced in earlier African films such as Moustapha Alassane’s The Return of an Adventurer (1966) and the work of filmmakers such as Djibril Diop Mambety and Alphonse Beni and allow them to comment on the difference between re-appropriation and mechanical reproduction, therefore, how reception can become a creative experience. Sissako follows the same logic to demonstrate that originality is the talent and the authorial capacity to infuse creative intervention and new meanings into old texts. His screen emphasizes the correlation between spatialization, perspectives and point of view and the need for wisdom in the constant negotiation between old and new knowledge. These frames set the stage for Sissako to complicate the western’s cultural dynamics in terms of the struggle between civilizations over nature, rationalism versus irrationalism, status quo versus movements. In Timbuktu, when the bad guys roll into town, there is neither a lone sheriff, ranger nor a posse of mercenaries making a last stand against the invaders on behalf of the town, but a set of strong local women holding up their nerves to brave the Damocles Sword of apocalyptic annihilation. The film bypasses religion to become a window into thuggish recolonization within a discourse on pathological masculinity that is ultimately intertwined with this civilizing mission or Jihad and raised questions of virility, violence and legitimate self-defense. These deconstructions of masculinity are to emphasize pretexts for masculine bullying and domination that can be read in Timbuktu as any anti-hero in conventional western movies. Timbuktu becomes emblematic of a cinematic reflection on art versus terror and one senses Sissako challenging cinematic production values to highlight the importance of artistic sovereignty and an aesthetic reading upon these difficult issues. It resorts that the Jihadists are not as culturally retrograde as they appear. They are high-tech media savvy and well inserted into global circuits of consumption and shown not to be living up to the rigid standards they set for others. This generation of Jihadists are heretofore caught up in unacknowledged product of historical processes of modernity and violence beyond their grasp.

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