Against Jihadism, The Power Of Art

With "Timbuktu," Abderrahmane Sissako searches deep to make artistic sense of the senseless horrors committed in the name of radical Islam. His movie has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.

"Timbuktu" trailer screenshot
Jacques Mandelbaum

PARIS — The expansion of jihadism these past 15 years puts our very concept of humanity at risk. We have, as such, long awaited the film that would artistically assess — and not only on sociological, political or spectacular levels — this extreme phenomenon. What was missing was a work that would complete the challenge of making something that shows so little concern for humanity exist as an aesthetic subject.

The old dilemma of art face-to-face with monstrosity. How should it be approached without betraying the subject, or betraying oneself? How should it be relayed without toning it down? Few works have managed to do so, whatever the name behind which the crime hides itself in history: law in Sophocles’ Antigone, war in Goya’s The Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica, genocide in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Rithy Panh’s S-21, humiliation in Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance.

This great film on the horror of jihad has now come to our screens with Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako. The director, who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, learned cinema in the Soviet Union. Now living in Paris, Sissako has only produced four full-length movies — Life on Earth (1998), Waiting for Happiness (2002), Bamako (2006) and Timbuktu (2014) — in a career that started in 1989.

When one knows how hugely talented he is, such a parsimonious list can be enraging. The positive side is that each one of his films is the condensed result of a long maturation that unforgettably resonates in one’s mind. This is due to the way Sissako films the world, tying pictures and stories together in a crystal-clear lace stretched above the abyss. A harrowing force of cinema, fragile but strong: stunning beauty, delicate but strong.

Such is Timbuktu, which, in addition to an exceptional artistic quality that earned it a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, finds new, gruesome resonance given current world events.

Cruelty and humor

We are in Timbuktu, Mali. In all likelihood, the action takes place between the summer of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, a period during which a coalition of Salafist groups (al-Qaeda in the Magreb, Ansar Dine and others) took over northern Mali and, as a result, the "pearl of the desert," Timbuktu. These forces replaced the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the Tuareg insurgency that took over the city in April, and were themselves ousted by the French and Malian military in January 2013.

These few months allowed the radical Islamists to impose Sharia law, burn down mausoleums and precious manuscripts, spread terror and engage in the cruelest acts of violence in the name of faith.

The director shows us this state of emergency through two parallel lines that eventually cross each other, with tragic consequences. There is the control of the Islamists over the city, like a noose getting tighter. The fate of a bright Tuareg family living on its outskirts, where the father is sentenced to death for having accidentally killed a fisherman. And that’s it. The rest is nothing but intelligence and beauty. Intelligence in the representation of the persecutors, less demonized (which would mean deified) than they are re-humanized. Ludicrous, cynical, hypocrite. Deaf and blind to the evil they are committing.

"Timbuktu" director Abderrahmane Sissako — Photo: Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba

Fanaticism comes in as a terrifying register of idiocy; and idiocy as an inexhaustible generator of humor: a former Belgian rapper turning all his attempts at propaganda videos into jokes, the man with the megaphone going around town listing the many prohibited acts so often that he doesn’t know what to forbid anymore, the religious man smoking in secret, the group of French jihadists arguing over soccer stars Zidane and Messi.

But, with humor, the creeping horror goes for the jugular when a young woman is flogged until she bleeds because she was caught singing, and an innocent father is killed with a public sense of duty.

Faced with this cesspit of idiocy and terror, the beauty of those who are crushed and resist with their minds shines forth: Kidane and Satima, this stunningly beautiful and graceful Tuareg couple, looking at their oppressors with their heads high; this voodoo doll insulting the spoilsports; the teenagers playing soccer without a ball; the imam who bravely reminds people of Islam’s values of tolerance.

The director will likely be reproached for what can seem like Manichaeism. The aesthetic level of the film covers its moral dimension: The persecutors are loathsome because they can do nothing else but insult and destroy the beauty of the world. The victims are beautiful because they are the living and personified protest against this deliberate, undoubtedly desperate, annihilation of life.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]


• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."


With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.



An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.


In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️


"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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