Two films dealing with the jihadist takeover in northern Mali will be considered in this review. The first is a remarkable documentary titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First” that opens tomorrow at the Village East in New York; the other is “Timbuktu”, a narrative film that was released in May of 2014 and that can now be seen on Amazon streaming. While “Timbuktu” has garnered a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not without its problems. I have to admit that I walked out on it 15 minutes into a press screening two years ago but decided to give it another try in order to survey such films within a broader consideration of the jihadist penetration of a country whose cultural significance is impossible to exaggerate. In both films, music and its banishment provide the narrative arc.
Directed by Joanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, is a profile of a group of musicians who were forced to leave the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after Ansar Dine (Arabic for defenders of the faith), a group aligned with al-Qaeda, took over. Now they are living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, or in other countries bordering Mali such as Burkina Faso. Drawn to Mali originally to cover the annual Festival in the Desert concert, Schwartz was introduced to Khaira Arby, the “nightingale of the north” who had sought refuge in Bamako. She was the person whose words about being denied the right to sing in her hometown Timbuktu serve as the film’s title.
She also profiles another female star exiled from the north known as Disco to her fans. Her real name is Fadimata Walet Oumar, the wife of a man identified only as “Jimmy” who was a top military leader of the Tuareg insurrection that was in a united front with Ansar Dine at one point. In the tangled political history of Mali, it is necessary to acknowledge that simple divisions between “good” and “evil” were not possible. The central government in Bamako had oppressed the Tuaregs for generations just as Bashar al-Assad had oppressed the Sunni majority. When the Tuareg resistance emerged as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), it found itself tactically aligned with the jihadists of Ansar Dine, a group that was made up of members of the Ifora tribe of Tuaregs and their allies from Algeria and Nigeria. The MNLA was dedicated to carving out a territory much as the Kurds are attempting in Syria and Iraq while Ansar Dine’s goal was to create an Islamic State based on Sharia law in all of Mali. Considering the possibility that the MNLA fueled the flames that led to his wife’s exile, Jimmy struggles between his ideals and the harsh reality they collided with.
Disco’s neighbor in Timbuktu was the guitarist Moussa Sidi who is now living in exile in Burkina Faso eking out a living playing in tiny clubs and at weddings. His wife stayed behind in Gao where she worked as an MNLA activist. Jailed for her beliefs, she remained unrepentant. Unlike her, Sidi was far more interested in music and good times than politics even though as a Tuareg he opposed the oppression his people suffered and remained true to his Muslim beliefs.
Finally, there are the members of Songhoy Blues, a group with no particular connection to the Tuareg struggle who fled to Bamako to escape the violence and tyrannical social norms of the north. They exemplify the Malian esthetic with their blend of American rock, Arabic harmony and Sub-Saharan rhythms. After they came to the attention of Brian Eno, the band toured England to great acclaim.
The film mixes interviews with the various musicians and their performances. It also includes a soundtrack from other Malian musicians including Ali Farka Touré, a superstar guitarist from the north who died in 2006 long before the troubles might have driven him into exile as well.
The climax of the film consists of the musicians on a return to Timbuktu to perform before adoring fans, only made possible by the military defeat of Ansar Dine by the Malian military and French intervention on its behalf. The Tuareg question still remains unresolved.
In the press notes for “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, Schwartz provides an answer to the question “What did the extremist groups do?”:
Extremists imposing Islamic law in Mali’s north were abusing human rights, particularly those of women, and paying families for children to become rebel fighters.
They imposed an extremist version of sharia law: music, football, alcohol and cigarettes were banned. There were cases of summary execution of captured soldiers, instances of lootings, rapes, stonings, beheadings and amputations. Women were forced to be covered and their ability to work was restricted. Men were forced to wear short trousers. Forced marriages happened – with a wife costing less than $1,000. Children were enlisted to fight and their families were paid about $600 or less.
The extremists destroyed ancient shrines, manuscripts from Timbuktu, and Sufi mosques. Radio stations, mobile phone towers and satellites were also destroyed.
This is essentially the conditions described in “Timbuktu” that begins with a scene depicting machine gun fire shattering African statues.
From that point on, the film pits longtime Timbuktu residents trying in their own passive resistance way to live as they have for millennia. They are observant Muslims but resistant to the Wahhabi straightjacket that Ansar Dine is trying to impose on them. We see its chieftan wrangling with a local imam who abjures them from oppressing the people with their harsh rule. When the Salafist states that they are obeying jihad, the imam replies that he too is for jihad but only within in his own heart as he struggles to avoid evil.
In a most telling scene, Ansar Dine morality police are sent out on a mission to find out the source of music that has been banned, just like soccer and long pants for men. When they track down the culprits, they are not sure what to do since the words of the singers accompanying a jaunty tune has to do with glorifying Allah rather than chasing after the opposite sex. It doesn’t matter. They are arrested and whipped.
The main character in the film is Kidane, a Tuareg herdsman who has stayed behind with his wife and daughter in the desert not far from Timbuktu determined to survive under jihadi rule even as all of his neighbors have fled. To show that he symbolizes Tuareg traditional values, he plays the guitar in his tent to provide the kind of entertainment his people have enjoyed from time immemorial.
Eventually a quarrel with a local fisherman escalates into a violent confrontation that leaves the fisherman dead and Kidane being arrested. His trial by a Sharia court is fairly consistent with the actual practice and arguably a lot less irrational than the other rules imposed on townspeople, including one that forces women to wear gloves at all times even if they are handling fish in the marketplace.
What the film lacks, and to an extent this is true of the documentary as well, is any kind of background on what caused Ansar Dine to be spawned and its ambivalent relationship to the long suffering Tuareg people. By characterizing Ansar militants as a kind of horror movie deus ex machina, and by failing to put its invasion into any kind of context, the film suffers from a certain amount of dramatic flattening. It would have made for a more interesting film if the leader of the jihadists had a back story that explained why he became such a fanatic. Since director Abderrahmane Sissako represented him as an Arab who did not even speak the local language, he remained rather opaque.
That being said, the film is definitely worth watching especially if you are trying to get a handle on the local manifestation of a global problem that some regard as the greatest threat to Western civilization since the days of the Ottoman Empire at its height. Perhaps the one-sided portrayal of the jihadists explains the 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With Arab terrorists and fanatics replacing the Communists and Nazis as evil incarnate, films such as “Timbuktu” satisfy a certain self-righteousness in the intelligentsia. It would have been a far more interesting film if it accurately reflected the true leader of Ansar Dine, who in fact was not an Arab but a Tuareg named Iyad Ag Ghaly who was a native son of northern Mali.
Ghaly was a leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s that foreshadowed the 2012 events depicted in the film. Indeed, his evolution into a hardcore Salafist could have provided a most interesting back story that would have enriched the film, as indicated by a fascinating article that appeared in the March 30 2012 Time Magazine (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110673,00.html):
The vitriolic falling out between ag Ghali and the MNLA goes some way to illustrating the complicated tapestry of interests and tensions within the Tuareg rebellion, a topic that swam into focus first after weaponry from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s looted arsenals flooded into the Sahara last year. With thousands of expatriate Tuaregs who worked for Gaddafi’s military forced to flee Libya amid the revolutionary chaos, much of the hardware is thought to have made its way to northern Mali. Desolate and unpoliceable, this swathe of desert and rocky scrub is also home to the regional terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That combination set alarm bells ringing. What, exactly, was the relationship between Tuareg fighters, with access to large quantities of heavy weaponry, and AQIM?
The truth, of course, is complicated. With an eye to U.S. military assistance, economic aid, international sympathy, the Malian government has much to gain by tarring the MNLA with the al-Qaeda brush — but the links are tenuous. True, over the years al-Qaeda emirs “are said to have worked to create some local relationships, both through marriage and transactions with some segments of local Tuareg and Arab communities,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. But “AQIM itself has yet to claim a role in the [Tuareg rebellion], and no overt evidence has been produced to show an AQIM role in the fighting in the north.”
Nor is Tuareg society the best fodder for Islamic fundamentalists. “Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than… ensuring the perfect afterlife,” a U.S. diplomat wrote in 2009. Tuareg women go unveiled; the menfolk cover their faces but drink and dance. In fact, it is the government in Bamako — rather than the veiled warriors of the north — that may have abetted the terrorists. In 2010, an Algerian diplomat told his US counterpart that someone in the Malian establishment had tipped off AQIM operatives ahead of a combined Algerian-Malian mission against the organization, enabling the terrorists to slip the net. “It looks worse than weakness on the part of the Malians,” the Algerian diplomat growled. “It looks like willful complicity.”
Yet none of this helps explain ag Ghali and his defenders of the faith. “Iyad is a special case,” says Andy Morgan, author of a forthcoming book on the Tuareg and a former band manager of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. “He has undoubted strengths as a political and military leader, with a perhaps a greater grasp of political tactics and subterfuge than any other Tuareg. [And] he was as much of a hedonist as many of the other [Tuareg] living in Algeria and Libya… apparently, a great fan of cigarettes, booze and partying.” Later, the story goes, ag Ghali underwent a religious re-birth, growing a voluminous beard and getting kicked out of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, during a diplomatic posting, for consorting with jihadists.
Speaking of Tinariwen: